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ETHICS QUESTIONS SLAM REDI: Chairman, local newspaper face fire over Blight Decree

"Spider web" of City Council lobbyists, lining their pockets with corporate cash
 
COLUMBIA, 2/26/12  (Op Ed) --  Ethics questions are re-surfacing about David Griggs, a long-time political insider and owner of a flooring company who also chairs an unusual, tax-funded partnership between a business lobbying group -- REDI, or Regional Economic Development, Inc. -- and Columbia City Hall.
 
Griggs name appears at the top of a May 2010 Columbia Daily Tribune article -- Untangling the IBM Web -- about REDI's move to bring IBM to Columbia.   Questions about REDI, Griggs, and the IBM deal took center stage during the audience discussion at Wednesday night's near-standing room only Blight Decree meeting at Parkade Center.  REDI is the decree's primary sponsor. 
 
Ironically, Tribune associate publisher Vicki Russell has also cast a conflict-of-interest pall, over husband Hank Waters' harsh editorial rhetoric about Blight Decree opposition.  Russell is vice chairman of REDI, a position Waters routinely fails to disclose. 
 
But if any one person has become the face of Columbia's new Blight Decree, it's Griggs.  He has testified before the City Council, mangling the words "eminent domain"; penned an editorial for the Columbia Tribune that mis-stated citizen concerns; and transformed himself from flooring salesman to real estate law expert in a matter of months, answering media questions with a limited grasp on the issue

Griggs didn't even know his own company is included in the blighted area, instead laughing to Council members on Feb. 6 that he'd like to be included, too.  Turns out, he is.  Griggs corrected himself yesterday to Missourian columnist George Kennedy.   
 
REDI -- or Not
 
On the same promise of manufacturing jobs, REDI helped bring IBM to town.  But "an intricate 'spider web'" of REDI members also lined up for $10 million in renovation work at 2810 LeMone Industrial Blvd.  

"Griggs is the chairman of REDI and...owns Dave Griggs’ Flooring America, which now has a $350,000 contract to provide carpet and ceramic tile for the IBM building project," the Tribune reported.   "Is that a conflict of interest?  I do not think so, honestly," Griggs said.
 
Audience members at Wednesday night's meeting wanted to know why a business lobbying group has such close, tax-funded ties to the public agency its members lobby -- the Columbia City Council and City Hall administrators.   They also wanted to know why only one side of the blight argument -- the REDI side -- was getting such big play. 
 
"I guess Griggs is laying a lot of carpet at the new City Hall," quipped attendee Amir Ziv.   Other people wanted a list of City-REDI member contracts for the past 10 years. 
 
The group's 2010 annual report describes an arrangement almost designed for conflicts of interest.  "REDI staff serves in a dual role as both REDI and City of Columbia employees," the website explains.  "Three REDI full-time positions are fully funded by the City of Columbia, and include personnel services, training, and computer support at a net City of Columbia contribution of $375,000." 

REDI's annual budget in 2010 was $520,000. 
 
Failure to disclose

Other REDI members who lined up for big chunks of the IBM deal include Realtor Paul Land, listing agent for the $3.05 million building sold by the family of deceased developer Bob Lemone;  Jay Burchfield, a former Jeffrey Smith associate whose firm earns $6,400 month managing the IBM property; bank presidents Steve Erdel and Jeff Maclellan; and other subcontractors
 
"If there’s nothing nefarious, then there’s no conflict" of interest, Burchfield told the Tribune, though it was unclear what he meant. 
 
Vicki Russell, associate publisher of the Tribune, is vice-chairman of the REDI board.   The Columbia Daily Tribune is also a REDI Investor
 
But Russell's husband, Trib publisher Hank Waters, failed to disclose her relationship with REDI or his firm's investment in a recent op-ed blasting critics of the blight decree

They're just a "persistent band of conspiracy theorists," Waters wrote.  Russell's presence on the REDI board, and Waters' prior support for eminent domain as late as 2009, has merited his newspaper the label "REDI public relations arm" by critics of the insider arrangement.  
 
Or as Dave Griggs would say, another strand in the web.   "You know, the spider web is pretty wide here," Griggs told the Tribune in 2010. 
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