The Idaho Bureau of Investigation is looking into whether former Spirit Lake Mayor Paul Korman misused city funds while in office.
Spirit Lake Police Chief Jeff Alexander said Wednesday that his department checked out tips regarding the mayor and alleged financial improprieties in April. Alexander wouldn’t be specific, but he said the case was turned over to the state agency.
At least one City Council member stands by the mayor, saying the allegations are implausible.
Elected unopposed in 1991, Korman stepped down seven weeks ago. He cited health problems.
A person who has seen some of the documents in the investigation said they show Korman racking up $1,600 in restaurant bills during his final seven months in office. Many of the charges are at the Blanchard Inn Steakhouse and BBQ. A waitress there said the mayor particularly liked the barbecued pork and chicken.
Idaho Bureau of Investigation special agent Fred Swanson confirmed that his agency is investigating the previous city administration. He said he’ll discuss his preliminary findings with the Kootenai County prosecutor’s office soon.
He added that the investigation could continue for months. “When you get into financial stuff, it can take longer than you expect,” he said.
The city’s current mayor, Bob Street, acknowledged that the City Council approved payment for Korman’s expenses. Street said he has not calculated the mayor’s charges and expenses, but the city paid all the bills without contesting them.
Street said, “We never saw the actual statements themselves. He’d go, sometimes, into a little bit of detail. But we had no reason to suspect anything was going on.”
City Councilman Rod Erickson said he hasn’t seen the documents but is skeptical of any allegations.
“I find it very, very hard to believe there’s any wrongdoing on his part,” said Erickson. Even if Korman did spend $1,600 on meals, Erickson said, most of the meals probably were related to the mayor’s effort to get state grants for Spirit Lake.
“If he’s working all day and the city got stuck here and there for a meal, it’s OK,” Erickson said.
Efforts to reach other council members were unsuccessful.
In addition to the financial investigation, some city residents have questioned the propriety of Korman’s wife lobbying the council on behalf of a private developer while Korman was mayor. City minutes show Susan Korman represented the Fountain Park subdivision. Mayor Korman did not step down from his seat April 11 while his wife pitched the proposal to the council.
Spirit Lake mechanic Leonard Browning protested.
“I think I see a direct conflict of interest here, with the mayor’s wife presenting a plan for a developer and the mayor entering into the decisionmaking process,” Browning said, according to the tape recording of the meeting.
“I take exception to that,” Korman told him, “since I have no interest in the subdivision except to make sure that it happens right.”
When a reporter and photographer went to Korman’s home seeking comment Wednesday, a man cracked open the door but wouldn’t show his face.
“What do you want?” he said through the crack.
Told who his visitors were, the man closed the door and locked it.
Earlier this month, The Spokesman-Review requested access to public records including Korman’s travel expenses, city credit card charges and mileage reimbursements.
On Monday, City Clerk Barbara Brown denied all the requests involving Korman, saying, “There is an ongoing law enforcement investigation in progress” involving those records.
The Spokesman-Review has asked Spirit Lake to reconsider its denial of public access to the former mayor’s expenses and other documents. Idaho law allows police to withhold documents during investigations, Spokesman-Review attorney Dan Finney said, but only if those documents were created for law enforcement.
“These records were compiled by the city long before any law enforcement investigation began,” Finney wrote in a letter to the city.