As St. Clair County continues efforts to recover $250,000 given to an indebted businessman, County Board member Ed Cockrell says the dispute could have been avoided with proper "checks and balances" regarding decisions with MidAmerica St. Louis Airport.
In response to Cockrell's criticism, Board Chairman Mark Kern said he strongly disagrees and the county Public Building Commission, which oversees the airport, did everything possible to protect taxpayers.
The commission agreed to pay the money to John G. Hewitt in late 2010. The cash was intended to serve as an incentive for Hewitt's company, H Trading LLC in New York, to build a 62,500-square-foot, $6 million cargo warehouse at MidAmerica.
Public Building Commission members have said they were not aware the Internal Revenue Service and the state of New York were seeking more than $1.3 million in back taxes from Hewitt at the time of the deal.
Cockrell said county officials were so excited for development at the airport they failed to protect taxpayers.
"We collectively didn't do due diligence," Cockrell said. "We have to do due diligence. It was just a matter of searching public records. Nobody did that."
"They wouldn't do that (contract with Hewitt) with their money why should they do it with taxpayers money. That's the only point that matters," he added.
Kern said he believed the Public Building Commission properly vetted Hewitt before the agreement but did not offer specifics.
"You look at the project and, of course, his plan at the airport was to create a footprint there for trade," Kern said. "It's important that airplanes fly in and out of MidAmerica so his included that. Part of this too is that we are attempting to add aircraft to the airport. That's what the goal was with this project."
The county filed suit in July 2012 after Hewitt missed an extended deadline for completing the project. Hewitt could not be reached for comment.
St. Clair County Judge Andrew Gleeson recently ruled Hewitt pay back the $250,000 along with interest and legal fees, and the lease terminated between H Trading and the county.
Commission member James Nations Sr. said he believes the county must now determine whether Hewitt has the resources to pay the judgment and whether the county will have to pursue those assets.
Nations said he favored "aggressively pursuing any and all avenues for collection" and the commission took pre-emptive steps towards recovering the funds as its members "walked down the development path" with Hewitt.
"I think you can agree we dramatically tightened our legal language to assist in the process of collecting funds should he be unable to create development," Nations said. "Now that the court judgment is saying he has not fulfilled his obligations to use, it is a matter of tracking down the money owed to us. As they said in the film, 'Show me the money.'"
Cockrell said he feels the problem could have been avoided should more members of the board been included in the decision-making regarding the airport.
"It's their way, their rules...." Cockrell said. "There's no checks and balances because they don't want one."
Kern said all board members are welcome to give their input and noted Republican Charles Lee, a former board member, was appointed to the Public Building Commission after showing interest in the airport.
"We've shown there is bipartisan representation on the Public Building Commission," Kern said. "In addition, quarterly reports are given at the economic development meeting, which is a board committee where Tim Cantwell (MidAmerica director) addresses the board on what the airport is doing."
Past incentives granted by the county to spur business at the MidAmerica have borne spotty results.
For example, the county provided $1.3 million in loans and incentives to Great Plains Airlines based in Tulsa in 2003. The airline filed for bankruptcy after four months flying out of MidAmerica -- leaving the county with a loss of $750,000.
Currently, the county has ongoing incentive-agreements with two businesses at the airport.
The Boeing Co. is paying back $3.5 million the county spent to renovate a warehouse into an assembly plant. And the county provided $2.15 million in cash to North Bay Produce Inc. in return for taking ownership of a $5.7 million refrigerated warehouse in 2027.
Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at email@example.com or 618-239-2501.