UPDATED: Airport-Related Ethics Complaint Against Councilwoman Jolie Justus Dismissed

Aug 30, 2017

A citizen has filed an ethics complaint against Councilwoman Jolie Justus, chairwoman of the airport selection committee, because the law firm she works for once litigated a case on behalf of Burns & McDonnell in an airport-related matter.
Credit Peggy Lowe / KCUR 89.3

Updated, 4:30 p.m. Wednesday: The ethics complaint against Councilwoman Jolie Justus has been dismissed.

A citizen filed the complaint on Sunday, alleging Justus had a conflict of interest serving on the airport selection committee because the law firm she works for, Shook, Hardy & Bacon, represented proposer Burns & McDonnell in litigation involving the Branson airport in 2013.

Justus, the firm’s director of pro bono legal services, says she wasn’t involved in the case and didn’t even know about it until last week, an assessment city attorney Cecilia Abbott agreed with. Burns & McDonnell is being represented by a different law firm, Stinson Leonard Street, in airport negotiations.

Justus says the airport selection committee can now resume airport deliberations. She says they’re planning to make an announcement at 2 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7.

Then it’s up to Kansas City voters in November.

The original post continues below.

The bidding process on a single terminal Kansas City International Airport has been delayed again, this time because a citizen filed an ethics complaint against Councilwoman Jolie Justus.

Justus is chairwoman of the city council’s airport committee and one of six individuals on the selection committee that’s vetting the proposals. She’s also a lawyer at Shook, Hardy & Bacon, which in 2013 represented Burns & McDonnell in litigation involving the Branson Airport. The engineering firm’s KCI Hometown Team is considered a frontrunner to build the new airport, as is the AECOM-led KCI Partnership.

A citizen filed the complaint Sunday, three days after Justus first learned her firm had represented Burns & McDonnell in an airport-related matter. Justus says she immediately brought the issue to the attention of city attorney Cecilia Abbott, who agreed there was no conflict of interest.

Still, Justus says she’s proceeding with caution.

“Our selection committee agreed unanimously yesterday (Tuesday) that there is absolutely no conflict of interest, and they understood my desire to push pause so I could meet with the ethics commission this afternoon,” Justus said Wednesday when reached by phone.

Justus says she doesn’t always know what cases Shook, Hardy & Bacon is working on because her job is director of pro bono legal services.

“Probably I’d say the majority of the work we’re doing at the firm I’m not aware of what it is on a day-to-day basis because of the size and frankly because of the nature of my practice,” Justus says. “Additionally because I don’t get compensated based on the firm’s success, I get no monetary benefit from any of the cases the firm is doing. My salary is based solely on merit.”

Justus says she’s hopeful the complaint can be resolved Wednesday afternoon so that the selection committee can continue deliberating. It’ll be up to the city to convince voters that the proposal picked is the right one ahead of the November election.

The same day the ethics complaint was filed, Citizens for Responsible Government sent out an email blast calling for Justus’ removal from the city council. The group opposes a single terminal KCI and believes the old airport can be renovated, something consultants have told the city will be more expensive.

That’s why Justus says she isn’t making a decision yet on whether to recuse herself.

“I’ve had people inform me that recusing myself this late in the process because of what appears to be a political attack could cause problems either way,” she says.

The ethics commission meets Wednesday afternoon.

Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.