KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A former prosecutor and chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party pleaded guilty Friday to a federal corruption charge involving the misuse of campaign funds for personal expenses and vacations.
Mike Sanders, 50, who was also a former Jackson County executive and prosecutor, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. His longtime aide and chief of staff, Calvin Williford, pleaded guilty to the same charge earlier Friday.
The Department of Justice said in a news release that Sanders and Williford directed political committees to issue checks to people who did little or no campaign-related work. Instead, the people cashed the checks and returned part of the money to Sanders or Williford. The men used the cash for personal expenses, including trips to Las Vegas. The men also admitted lying about their activities on campaign finance reports.
The charge against Williford also described how both men had a printing company submit bogus invoices to funnel payments to Williford and other workers on Sanders’ campaigns that they did not want to identify on disclosures filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission.
The convictions carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Both men were released pending sentencing.
Williford, 60, admitted that he misused between $40,000 and $95,000 in campaign funds, while Sanders admitted illegally spending between $15,000 and $40,000.
Sanders’ attorney, J.R. Hobbs, said in a statement that Sanders knows he made mistakes and will accept whatever consequences come from his actions.
“He sincerely apologizes to his family and residents of Jackson County,” Hobbs said. “Mike set out to do good work for the people of this community, and he made many positive and constructive improvements.”
Williford said in a statement that he was sorry for the pain he caused his family and friends.
“I will not make excuses for my stupidity and fully accept responsibility for my actions,” he said.
The Kansas City Star reported in December that a longtime friend, Steve Hill, said Sanders would deliver checks made out to Hill for campaign work Hill didn’t perform. Hill said he would keep about 10 percent of the money and return the rest to Sanders, who told Hill the money was being used for political purposes. Sanders quit delivering checks to him in late 2013, Hill said, after he told Sanders the FBI was investigating.
Sanders was chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party from 2011 to 2013. After serving as county prosecutor, Sanders was elected county executive in 2006 and was re-elected in 2010 and 2014.
When Sanders unexpectedly announced his resignation in December 2015, just one year into his four-year term, he said the job had taken its toll on him and he wanted to return to private law practice. He went to work for a prominent Independence law firm but took a leave after the Star’s report.