Biofuels plant proposal under FBI probe in Kansas City

Attempts to convert a former power plant into a biofuels operations in Kansas City have drawn the interest of the FBI.

The Kansas City Star reported that two individuals involved in controversial energy projects in Independence that have drawn FBI scrutiny submitted a formal proposal to help repurpose a separate, soon-to-be shuttered city power plant.

A collection of businesses led by Titan Fish Partners LLC has a proposal with a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars to repurpose the Blue Valley Municipal Power Generating Plant in northeast Independence into a biofuels production facility “to provide alternative fuels for the future.”

The city has only just begun examining repurposing options for the power plant. But the nature of the proposal and those involved in it has drawn exasperation from two Independence City Council members.

“I would not even consider a bid from them,” said Councilman Scott Roberson. “Not even consider it.”

One team member listed in the proposal told The Star he knew “little to nothing” about the project and had no agreement with Titan Fish.

Numerous businesses and individuals are involved in the proposal, including Kansas investor Joe Campbell and Steve Tilley, a statehouse lobbyist and former Missouri House speaker who is a longtime friend and adviser to Gov. Mike Parson.

According to people who were interviewed by the FBI over the last few months, Tilley has been a central figure in questions focused on a pair of questionable utility contracts in Independence and the rollout of Missouri’s fledgling medical marijuana program.

In Independence, three city council members say they were interviewed by the FBI late last year about the utility contracts, including one contract that was awarded to a company owned by a longtime associate of Tilley.

Tilley’s firm is paid $120,000 by the city to lobby on behalf of Independence Power & Light.

In Jefferson City, the FBI has spoken to a handful of lawmakers, lobbyists and statehouse staff since the start of the Missouri legislative session in January — with questions centering on Tilley’s ties to medical marijuana companies and to Parson’s administration.

Tilley has long been considered an influential figure in the Capitol, and his stature has risen since Parson took over as governor in June 2018 — his list of registered clients has more than quadrupled over that time.

Tilley has more than a dozen clients that are involved in some way in the medical marijuana industry. That includes the Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association, an industry group whose members were awarded dozens of licenses to grow, transport and sell marijuana.

Debbie Holmes, a medical marijuana advocate in Independence, said two FBI agents interviewed her in November about the city’s medical marijuana regulations. The Independence City Council in July implemented zoning regulations for marijuana dispensaries that far exceeded state restrictions — zoning that became the subject of litigation. Holmes said the agents, who came to her home, asked her whether there were any “ringleaders” on the council pushing the marijuana zoning.

She said she told the agents of her own research into political and business connections between perennial players in Independence like Tilley and Campbell. Holmes said the agents, who she said resembled “G Men in suits,” seemed interested in the conversation, but gave away little about the status of their inquiry.

“They seemed to take it seriously,” she said. “Now, are they going to do much about it? I have no clue.”

An FBI spokesperson in Kansas City could not be reached for comment, but the agency typically does not publicly confirm or deny the existence of investigations.

Former Independence Power & Light director Leon Daggett is listed among team members in the Titan Fish proposal.

Daggett retired from IPL in 2017; he received a transition and consulting contract with the utility that paid him more than $200,000. Shortly after Daggett’s departure was announced, Independence received a management audit of Independence Power & Light that said the utility’s financial condition had been deteriorating and that a survey of IPL employees revealed low morale in the workplace.

Daggett was previously in charge of the Board of Public Utilities in Kansas City, Kansas. He was fired in 2005 amid tensions with the board over his management of the electric and water utility.

Daggett said he was a consultant for the Titan Fish project. He said he wasn’t aware of any FBI investigation that asked questions about IPL projects with ties to Tilley or Campbell and said he worked with them because each have a good reputation.

Antonio Soave is listed as a member of the Titan Fish proposal. Soave is the former secretary of the Kansas Department of Commerce under then-Gov. Sam Brownback.

Soave left the Commerce Department in 2017. A Star story in 2017 showed that Soave’s friends received Commerce Department contracts during his tenure. Brownback’s office later acknowledged that the contracts played a role in his decision to terminate Soave.

Reached via email, Soave said he knew little to nothing about the Titan Fish proposal.

“Someone called me from Titan Fish a while ago, but I have not agreed to anything,” Soave said. “I have no agreement, no contract and no arrangement with Titan Fish or its people. In fact, I know little to nothing about this project.”

Tilley, who did not respond to a request for comment from The Star, is named on the proposal to repurpose the Blue Valley Plant, but it’s unclear what role he would play in that project.

He is the lobbyist for Titan Fish, a Kansas-based investment company owned by Campbell, whose firm played a role in an Independence solar farm built at the former Rockwood Golf Club.

Campbell acknowledged sending in a response to Independence’s request for information, but declined to take questions during a brief phone conversation with The Star.

The city council voted to purchase the Rockwood site for nearly $1 million in October 2017, just months after Titan Fish purchased the property for $550,000 from a company that had owned the closed golf course for several years.

Just days before the council voted to purchase the property, Independence Mayor Eileen Weir received more than $10,000 in donations from political action committees with deep ties to Tilley and funded by Tilley’s clients. The money used to purchase the golf club came from another Tilley lobbying client, the city’s utility, Independence Power & Light.

Aside from the solar farm, Independence council members said FBI agents last fall asked questions about a nearly $10 million contract awarded to a St. Louis company to decommission an electric power plant in Missouri City owned by Independence Power & Light.

The $10 million price tag was twice the amount bid by another company for the project.

The company that won the contract, Environmental Operations, is owned by Stacy Hastie, a regular donor to Tilley in the General Assembly who lent him a private plane to attend campaign events.

Tilley’s relationship with Hastie has drawn attention before, most notably in 2012 when state lawmakers earmarked more than $1 million to a project being co-developed by Hastie’s company.

Tilley is registered to lobby for a company called AM Medical Marketing, which according to paperwork filed with the state ethics commission shares the same phone number as Environmental Operations.

The company was created in May 2019 by John Diehl, another former House speaker and longtime friend of Tilley who worked for Environmental Operations as its general counsel when it received the Missouri City contract in 2017.

Diehl resigned in 2015 from the House after it was revealed that he had sent sexually charged text messages to an intern.

Hastie did not respond to a request for comment.

Two Independence City Council members critical of those previous projects said the city had no business getting back into business with Campbell and Tilley.

Roberson in November said he was interviewed by FBI agents who asked about the Rockwood solar farm project and the Missouri City power plant.

“I think it’s foolish on the city to consider anything from somebody that is still possibly involved in this whole FBI investigation that’s been going on since last October or November,” he said. “Obviously, they were part of that investigation because it involved Missouri City. And most of these players were involved in that. So why would we even consider this?”

For months, council members have debated the future of the city’s utility — both how and whether it will continue producing electricity into the future. After the closure of its last power plant this summer, the community of nearly 120,000 people will be left with only six aging combustion turbines to produce power. The utility purchases electric capacity from the Southwestern Power Pool and recently approved an agreement with an Oklahoma natural gas company for power.

Source: Kansas City Star