Lawyer says Columbia councilman 'did not commit a crime'

Case focuses on deal with developer

Lawyer says Columbia councilman did...

COLUMBIA, Mo. - The lawyer for a Columbia city councilman accused of misusing his office says his client will "exercise his right to be presumed innocent and defend himself in court."

The Cole County prosecutor's office charged Columbia Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas with a misdemeanor Thursday in connection with a scuttled deal with a housing developer.

The charge against Thomas is related to a deal Thomas struck with a developer last November under which the developer would give money to a not-for-profit affordable housing organization in exchange for Thomas' support of a subdivision plan. The plan never came before the city council for a vote.

His attorney, Christopher Slusher, in a statement released after news of the charges became public said Thomas has been "open and transparent before and after the legality of the payment was raised."

Slusher said Thomas took corrective action "when concerns were raised -- he did not commit a crime."

Thomas wrote in a newsletter to his constituents Thursday that he was being charged with the misdemeanor of an attempt to commit a prohibited act by an elected official. 

Thomas reported himself to the Missouri Ethics Commission in November after Columbia City Attorney Nancy Thompson told him the deal could be criminal. 

"Although I made a serious error of judgment, I do not believe that my actions rise to the level of a criminal offense – therefore, I plan to plead 'not guilty' to the charge and defend myself in court," Thomas said in his email to constituents. "As a constituent, I want you to hear this news directly from me, and I want to give you the opportunity to respond to me with your reaction."

Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Locke Thompson sent a news release explaining the charges.

"It is alleged that from October 2018 through November 2018, Mr. Thomas engaged in negotiations and made a promise to vote for a land development bid, as well as influence other members of the City Council to vote for the bid, contingent on a $40,000.00 payment to the Columbia Land Trust," Thompson wrote.

Thompson was appointed as special prosecutor on the case after Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Knight recused himself.

Though the deal never came to pass, Thomas took "substantial steps by negotiating a deal to provide affordable housing in the proposed development and in return he offered support for the development" by pledging to vote for it and by work to get other council members' support, according to the probable cause statement filed in the case.

Second Ward Council Mike Trapp was also part of the negotiation, according to the probable cause statement.  

"I know he didn't have any bad intent, and he was just trying to help the community," Trapp said. "I think it's an unfortunate situation and support goes to he and his family."

Trapp said he had participated in discussions about the project to give expert opinion on inclusive housing.

He said while he believed the proposal was worthy of consideration, he had no word in the negations. 

"I had spoken with him the night before and I told him when he did correspondence on this to not say 'we' because it was not something we were doing," Trapp said. "It was something he was doing and something I may or may not be supportive of."

ABC17 News reached out to Mayor Brian Treece for a comment, but has not received a  response.

Check back for updates on this developing story.

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