Chalfant: Checks' journey around Sedalia leads to investigation of police

July 6, 2010

Wire services such as United Press International and The Associated Press allowed local newspapers to print news from distant cities. Shortly after its founding, The Sedalia Democrat began to subscribe to a wire service. Readers could learn of events around the nation and world.

Other newspapers, including those in St. Louis, sometimes printed articles about Sedalia. Most of these articles were short. However, in March 1949, the St. Louis Labor Tribune, described in its masthead as “an official weekly labor organ voicing the interests of the American Federation of Labor,” devoted most of its first page to articles about Sedalia. The articles, under the headline “Sedalia Labor Civic Group Girds to Return Government to People,” detail firings of city employees, city council appointments, and other questions about the workings of Mayor Julian Bagby’s office.

One of the articles specifically suggests that the process of collecting fines levied by the Sedalia Police Department was confusing if not unethical. On March 12, local businessmen reported two checks passing from businessman to businessman. Most local merchants cashed checks for their customers. In addition, passing two-party checks was not unusual at the time; one merchant might pay another businessman for a purchase with a check a customer had written him. Since most of the businessmen knew one another, they could usually be sure the checks would clear the banks when they were presented.

Two checks raised questions, however. One of the checks was written on Feb. 5 to the Sedalia Police Department, ostensibly to pay a fine levied by a police officer. It had not been deposited into the Police Department’s account, but instead had been endorsed by a member of the police department and cashed at a local store.

The other check, dated Feb. 7, was thought to also have been written to pay a fine, but was made out to “an individual member of the police department.” It had been endorsed by a person “who was not an ‘ordinary’ member of the force” and had been cashed by a local business.

The businessmen who first cashed the checks feared they were fraudulent. Rather than deposit the checks, they passed them among themselves, or in the words of the St. Louis Labor Tribune, “palmed them off to other Sedalia businessmen.” No one wanted to risk presenting the checks to the banks. Finally one businessman who asked to remain anonymous approached a member of the City Council. He asked the councilman what could be done to get the checks cashed. The councilman used his own money to pay the businessman the face value of the checks. He then began to investigate.

The councilman raised serious questions about why the first check was not deposited into the police department account and why the second check was written to an individual rather than to the police department. He also wanted to know why they were cashed by individuals and what had happened to the money from the checks.

This investigation prompted a further investigation into the collection of fines and the monthly reports of those fines made to the city by the police department. The councilman discovered that Sedalia received a substantial amount of money from fines. In May 1946, for example, Sedalia took in $750, in September, $839.50, and in October, $628. In June 1947, fines totaled $1,018.50. In April 1948, fines totaled $506 and in August $1,292.

In December 1948, the amount of fines dropped to $462.50; in January 1949, fines totaled only $407. The St. Louis Labor Tribune attributed the decrease in collected fines to a change of staff in the Sedalia Police Department. In December, Police Chief Edgar Neighbors fired George Maness, the officer in charge of collecting and depositing fine monies and replaced him with Norbert White.

Neighbors explained that Maness and fellow officers John Neitzert and Melvin Shoemaker had been fired for the rather vague accusation of “non-cooperation.” White received a $10 pay increase, presumably because of his “cooperation.” The men’s firing was itself a matter of investigation. Next week’s column will tell what happened when the officers appealed their firings in court.