Bruce Cole plopped into Missouri five years ago with a baited line. Through a “site consultant,” Bruce Cole contacted several Midwestern states promising jobs if Mamtek could secure some economic development incentives. In March, Missouri’s Department of Economic Development and Moberly bit – hard.
Cole claimed Mamtek had a fully operational sweetener plan in Wuyishan City, China. They were looking to expand to the Midwest to take advantage of new contracts.
On April 8, 2010, DED asked Edward Li, a contractor in Shanghai, China employed by Armstrong Teasdale, to investigate Mamtek’s China operations. What Li found should have stopped the project immediately. On April 13, he explained, “We found (Mamtek’s) plant in Fujian Province, China, never started to manufacture.” On May 17, Li followed up that he still had not found a Mamtek manufacturing plant in China.
In mid-May 2010, Morgan Keegan was hired to underwrite bonds for Mamtek’s new taxpayer-financed plant in Moberly. Armstrong Teasdale was then hired as counsel for the bonds. (Yes, the same firm whose employee found Mamtek didn’t have a China plant.)
On June 3, 2010, DED and Moberly received “due diligence” documents from Mamtek – a business plan, purported letters of interest from sweetener customers, and a financial statement claiming $7.2 million in cash or equivalents. Neither DED nor Moberly followed up on the documents. If they had, they would have quickly discovered that the letters of interest were boilerplate and the $7.2 million did not exist.
If Moberly or DED had simply run a background check on Bruce Cole, they would have learned that, around the same time, a previous investor had sued him for $250,000, American Express had filed a lien against him for $135,000 for credit card debt, and he had defaulted on the $3.7 million mortgage on his Beverly Hills home.
On July 9, Gov. Nixon visited Moberly and announced that, with the help of DED and Moberly area leaders, Mamtek would create 612 new jobs. The “incentive” package offered by the state included $17.6 million in so-called jobs tax credits and block grants. An additional $37 million would be provided through bond sales “initiated, structured, and committed by the city of Moberly.”
The project collapsed by winter. In the summer of 2011, I led an investigation into the Mamtek fiasco. We issued a bi-partisan and unanimous report. Many parties were to blame – most obviously Bruce Cole and Mamtek. Nevertheless, the fraud should have been caught by DED, Moberly, and the financial professionals hired to conduct due diligence. It wasn’t particularly sophisticated and the scheme could have been unraveled just by a few background checks.
At the time of our hearings, DED and Gov. Nixon’s office claimed no real harm was done in Moberly because the state tax credits were never actually issued. They were dead wrong. There were Missouri small business owners who had contracted with Mamtek believing that, since the company had the backing of the state and Moberly, it would be good for its word. After all, Gov. Nixon dropped in for a huge event calling Mamtek the future of Moberly’s economy.
Two of those small business owners were Denice Burks and her brother Darrell Kolb. They own Stockman Construction in Jefferson City. In 2010, they’d only owned it for five years. The Mamtek contract was a big deal for them. They completed $800,000 worth of work in infrastructure improvements around the plant – and waited for full payment. It never arrived. When the sweet turned sour, Stockman hired a lawyer to get paid for their work. They were told to wait in line. By this summer, they had spent nearly $100,000 in legal fees chasing payment for the project both Gov. Nixon and Moberly touted.
Then, last year, Moberly decided it would take advantage of the work Stockman Construction had done around the site. Moberly wanted another contractor to finish the job Stockman had stopped when it became clear they’d never be paid. So it bid-out the add-on project.
Burks and Kolb were hopeful. Since Moberly was now going to obviously benefit from the improvements Stockman had made, maybe Moberly would pay them for their work. They set out to exercise their First Amendment right to petition the government. In this case, they merely sought fairness, to be paid for the work for which they were stiffed because Moberly was asleep at the wheel. Last week, Moberly, clearly disconnected from reality, released a statement saying it “cannot use taxpayer dollars to bail out a private business to whom it has no responsibility.”
Stockman and other contractors who were stiffed in this fiasco bear far less blame than anyone else involved. Stockman did nothing wrong other than reasonably rely on Moberly and Gov. Nixon’s enthusiastic endorsements. If Moberly had merely checked Mamtek’s bank account before touting it as their economic savior, Stockman and the other contractors would not have been ripped off. If DED had just shared the information about the China plant, no one would have been harmed. If any of the financial professionals had done their job, no one would have been harmed.
Now, five years later, it’s the small business owners and taxpayers who are left holding the empty bag. The financial professionals settled a lawsuit against them for just over $8 million. Nothing happened to Standard & Poor’s. Gov. Nixon was re-elected. So was Moberly’s Mayor Bob Riley. Denice Burks, Darrell Kolb and dozens of other contractors — the innocents in this tragedy — are the ones paying for Moberly’s mistakes.
Moberly could’ve pled poverty. Instead, they insulted Stockman and the intelligence of all those involved, including their citizens. Moberly’s leaders prefer the public to ignore what actually happened in 2010. To date, Moberly’s leaders have proven proficient at deflecting blame, but otherwise incompetent. But now it’s obviously gone too far. Mayor Riley and Moberly’s City Council should be ashamed for attacking the very small business owners whose work they enjoy but refuse to pay.