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Neosho City Council Ethical Questions

A recorded conversation between a Neosho council member and a city employee raises ethical questions. It involves Councilman Steve Hart and Neosho City Attorney Steve Hays having a heated discussion.
NEOSHO, MO.--- "Make it go away. I'm telling you now, make it go away," said Steve Hart, Neosho City Council Member.

It's a phrase you can hear repeatedly spoken by City Council Member Steve Hart in a conversation recorded by Neosho City Attorney Steve Hays. It was taped without the knowledge of Councilman Hart in April of last year. 

"You know how we are. Just become our little b---- , city attorney. Do a good job, and everything will be fine," said Hart.

Intense language spoken by Hart as he tries to convince the city attorney to make a traffic ticket go away. The violation involved a resident improperly riding a lawn mower on a city road. 

"I will not allow myself to do that," said Steve Hays, Neosho City Attorney, during the recorded conversation.

"It's the right thing to do," said Hart. 

"The right thing to do is treat him the same as I do everybody else," replied Hays. 

"He should've never got a ticket," argued Hart. 

"He did and it was a right ticket," Hays replied.

The more the city attorney refuses to drop the traffic violation, the more pressure Councilman Hart applies. 

"I can vote to fire your a-- and I don't need any proof," said Hart, on the recording. 

Upon hearing the recording for the first time, Neosho Mayor Richard Davidson says he's disappointed, "No elected official should be coming to the city attorney, trying to tell him who to press charges against or who to drop charges against. That's not our role, and if it doesn't cross the line of doing things that are certainly unethical but possibly more, it certainly walks right up to that line."

Mayor Davidson also believes the language and tone Hart used to address the city attorney was inappropriate. 

"I wouldn't talk to my employees that way. I wouldn't talk to my co-workers that way. That's not the way any council member should be talking to an employee of the City of Neosho," said Mayor Davidson.

However, Mayor Davidson says he's also not surprised. 

"I've had Mr. Hart in my face before, accusing me of things and taking things personal. I've seen his behavior," he said. 

It's apparently not an isolated incident. The mayor points to an ethics hearing earlier this year investigating the actions of two council members, including Hart. The ethics complaint was filed by a private citizen and later withdrawn, but it brought up other issues involving Hart. 

"There were allegations of a physical assault against the city manager," said Mayor Davidson. 

During the recorded conversation, Councilman Hart accuses Mr. Hays of targeting specific Neosho residents for his own agenda.

"I'm not going to have you running a little vindictive campaign against anybody, okay? Because I knew you had the cop give him the ticket," said Hart. 

"How do you know that?" asked Hays. 

"I was told it and that is none of you business," replied Hart. 

"It never happened. Bring proof," said Hays.

"I don't need proof," said Hart. 

Mayor Davidson disagrees with the accusations Hart made against the city attorney. 

"He's always behaved in a way that I felt was very honorable with a high level of integrity. It didn't matter if he was with you or against you, I always felt he did what was in the best interest of the City of Neosho," said Mayor Davidson. 

Councilman Hart declined to be interviewed, but his attorney issued this statement.

"It is clear from the portion of the recorded conversation which has been distributed to the press, that Councilman Hart was upset with City Attorney Steve Hays for the manner in which City Attorney Hays was targeting Neosho citizens for minor, harmless activities such as driving a lawn mower or tractor on a city street without a driver's license. Councilman Hart deeply regrets the manner in which he expressed his frustrations to City Attorney Hays, but firmly believes such activity is not illegal and the city's limited law enforcement resources should be put to better use. More importantly, it seems improper for City Attorney Steve Hays to secretly record a conversation about city legal issues between himself and his client, Councilman Hart." 

Mayor Davidson says he wants to make it clear to the public, Hart was not speaking for the city council during the recorded conversation.

"It's almost like he was a bully in there and hearing that it's consistent with other things we heard come out of the ethics hearing, it's very disappointing to say the least," said Mayor Davidson.

"If you want a battle against the city council over that little p--- deal, then you're going to have a battle and I'm going to be leading it against you. Make it go away. I'm telling you, make it go away," said Hart. 

Neosho City Attorney Steve Hays declined to do an interview or issue a statement. 





Statement from Steve Hart's attorney, Bruce Copeland:
   It is clear from the portion of the recorded conversation which has been distributed to the press that Councilman Hart was upset with City Attorney Hays for the manner in which City Attorney Hays was targeting Neosho citizens for minor, harmless activities such as driving a riding lawn mower or tractor on a city street without a driver's license. Councilman Hart deeply regrets the manner in which he expressed his frustrations to City Attorney Hays, but firmly believes such activity is not illegal and the city's limited law enforcement resources should be put to better use.
More importantly, it seems improper for City Attorney Steve Hays to secretly record conversations bout city legal issues between himself and his client, Councilman Hart, and then duplicate only a portion of the conversation and allow it to be distributed to third parties, including the press. It is apparent that Attorney Hays released this partial recording of their confidential conversation for the purpose of doing harm to his own client, Councilman Hart. The Missouri Supreme Court has ethical rules governing the conduct of Missouri attorneys that take a dim view of this sort of conduct. Finally, what justification does City Attorney Hays claim for releasing this partial recording now, when he didn't see fit to release it when the conversation occurred more than a year ago? 

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