Ongoing Investigation of EB-5 Fraud Charges at Jay Peak

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The Situation

The plan was grand: Half a billion dollars of private money invested in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the state’s most rural — and most economically challenged — region. Four-season destination resorts, year-round manufacturing jobs, an international airport, a veritable “Renaissance” to revive the economy on the shores of Lake Memphremagog, which spans the Canadian border.

This black cat slipped beneath a chain link fence that cordons off the city block razed for a development that never came. © Hilary A. Niles

Some of those projects did get built: Jay Peak Resort, formerly a sleepy ski area with renowned slopes, now also boasts an indoor water park, golf course, hockey arena, hotels, penthouse suites and condominiums galore. Burke Mountain Resort likewise got its first hotel, and an on-site conference center.

But in Newport, Vt., the Canadian border town, an empty hole the size of a city block gapes where commercial buildings and apartments were razed to make room for the Renaissance project that isn’t to be. At the state-owned airport, an extended runway awaits international flights that can’t land without U.S. Customs operations in the new terminal that’s not built. Those manufacturing projects? Never begun.

And roughly 700 immigrant investors from 74 countries, who collectively poured about $350 million into the master vision, are yet unpaid. Some have received the green cards offered in exchange for their investments, through the federal EB-5 Immigrant Investor program. Others’ immigration status hovers in limbo, while federal and state lawsuits play out against Jay Peak owner Ariel Quiros and longtime resort president Bill Stenger.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Vermont’s financial regulators allege the two men perpetrated a “massive” securities fraud in which they illegally pooled and misappropriated investor money for years. Quiros, they charge, also leveraged the funds through unauthorized loans, which he then used to help amass his own personal fortune.

Also implicated in the saga: state officials, from governors to department heads to employees charged with overseeing the state’s EB-5 program since 1997.

The coverage

Bill Stenger surveys construction developments at Jay Peak Resort. © Hilary A. Niles

Did Quiros really do it? Did Stenger know and help? Should or could the state have prevented the alleged fraud, or stopped it sooner? If this happened at Jay Peak — and in Vermont, where the state government itself oversees EB-5 developments — what’s occurring in places with less accountability?

My ongoing investigation, in partnership with Vermont Public Radio, tells the unfolding tale of Jay Peak, of the hundreds of immigrant investors who trusted its leaders with their money, and of the state officials who kept giving their developments green lights — until announcing in April 2016 sweeping fraud charges against them.

My EB-5 coverage has also aired on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered:

in The Montreal Gazette and Boston Globe:

and prior to the charges, on the Vermont-based nonprofit news website VTDigger.org as a staff reporter:

I have also been featured on radio and television news programs (VPR, Vermont PBS, CBC) to discuss the ongoing situation and my reporting on it.

Jay Peak loses trust of first EB-5 investors

2651 words / by Anne Galloway and Hilary Niles / VTDigger.org

A group of immigrant EB-5 investors are incensed that Bill Stenger, president and CEO of Jay Peak Resort, seized ownership of the Tram Haus Lodge and turned their half-million dollar equity stakes in the property into IOUs.

Investors had no knowledge of Stenger’s actions until five months after they were executed.

Bill Stenger (foreground, right), president and CEO of Jay Peak Resort, presides over the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the immigrant-funded Stateside Hotel and Baselodge. Photo by Hilary Niles / VTDigger

Stenger and his partner at Jay Peak, Miami-based Ariel Quiros, dissolved the company on Aug. 31, 2013, turned the investments into unsecured loans and “waived” investors’ legal rights, according to documents obtained by VTDigger. Stenger says he sent an email to investors with the promissory note on Jan. 24 of this year, but he did not mail official, paper copies until May.

After the investors sent letters of complaint to Stenger and the state, Jay Peak agreed to change certain terms of the IOU in a take-it-or-leave-it offer earlier this month.

In an interview, Stenger said he did not need to consult with the 35 limited partners in Jay Peak Hotel Suites, LP, before he dissolved the company, because Jay Peak had the legal right to do so under the limited partnership agreement with the investors.

Stenger said he regrets not communicating better with both investors and state officials, and he takes full responsibility for the “big mistake.”

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Q Empire: The man behind the Northeast Kingdom’s biggest plan

3332 words / VTDigger.org

Ariel Quiros is the entrepreneurial force behind Jay Peak ski resort and the $600 million Northeast Kingdom Economic Development Initiative – one of the largest development projects ever attempted in Vermont.

Though the project is high profile, Quiros is not. The international tycoon, though sometimes seen, is seldom heard.

Ariel Quiros whispers to Gov. Peter Shumlin during a press conference at Jay Peak’s Stateside Hotel and Baselodge. Photo by Hilary Niles/ VTDigger

The first generation American stands out at press conferences for his mystique: When he’s not got the ear of the governor, Quiros is most often seen standing uncomfortably before a crowd with pursed lips, staring silently and expressionless, at nothing in particular, through ice blue eyes.

Quiros quietly presides over an integrated set of projects that together constitute the largest private investment Vermont has ever seen: expansions at Jay Peak, development of the newly renamed Q Burke Mountain ski area, the mixed use Renaissance Block planned for downtown Newport, the future site of a biotech firm in the same town, and the promise of a new and improved Newport State Airport in Coventry.

“I make the vision,” he says quietly, a touch of gravel in his voice after 20-plus years of smoking.

His accent, clearly from New York, is also infused with the Puerto Rican and Venezuelan accents of his mother and father, respectively. He speaks three languages and his English borrows sometimes a tense from Spanish or a cadence from Korean, his wife’s native tongue.

He just sees things, Quiros says. He gets a vision for what can be, ignores all obstacles, and surrounds himself with people who can make it happen.

And they do, which is why Quiros likes to keep to himself. Business risk is thrilling, but trust is a precious commodity for a millionaire. Quiros is generous with friends, but says he hasn’t fought for all he’s built to give it away, much less have it taken.

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Community fears history will repeat itself at Q Burke Mountain

3310 words / VTDigger.org

It’s the day before Q Burke Mountain opens for the winter, and Ary Quiros could just as well be preparing for battle as for business.

The new CEO is opening the ski resort for the first time since he started at the mountain the previous winter, and he’s amped. If Quiros, 36, can turn this chronically failing but beloved ski area into a stable business, he will succeed where prior, much wealthier, owners have failed.

The arc of history and local expectations give him long odds. But Quiros — and his staff — are determined.

Wearing a weathered, Army green jacket and frequently checking a watch face practically the size of his wrist, Quiros shuttles from one outpost of operations to another to check on his troops: snowmaking, ticket sales, kitchen, pub and cafeteria. Finances. Marketing. Housecleaning.

“It’s like being in the Army again,” Quiros says. The 12-year veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is now a captain with the Vermont National Guard. He relishes intensity in the field, clarity of mission, camaraderie, and he applies his military leadership experience to Q Burke Mountain operations.

Ary Quiros served in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Iraq and held other posts in Afghanistan and South Korea before taking over as CEO of Q Burke Mountain ski area in Vermont. Photo by Hilary Niles/ VTDigger

“You take care of them,” Quiros says about both his military units and staff. “They watch your back, and you move forward.”

The responsibility to provide for and protect his staff weighs heavily on Quiros, perhaps even propels him.

And his military analogy for mountain operations is echoed by his father, Ariel Quiros, who purchased Burke Mountain in 2012.

Ariel Quiros says half a dozen buyers before him couldn’t close the deal because of the mountain’s high-profile history and reputation with banks and investors: Bankruptcies dating back to the 1980s. A bounced tax check to the town for $97,374.30. More bankruptcies. A public auction. Ginn Companies’ $675 million default with Credit Suisse bank.

“Boom boom boom, bombs away,” Quiros says. “Everybody’s shelling the mountain, all the banks, doesn’t wanna fund it. All the businessmen failed.”

Some of them, Quiros notes, possessed or managed wealth that far exceeds his own, built from international trade since the 1980s. Bernd Schaefers was a German movie producer who made “The NeverEnding Story” and “In the Name of the Rose.” Donald Graham founded investment firms that collectively manage upwards of $7 billion. Developer Bobby Ginn presided over real estate transactions across the country that also measure in the billions.

None of their business plans at Burke held. Some went down in flames.

And plans now are as grand as ever: to brand the mountain as year-round training grounds for elite athletes. Buildout is expected to cost about $108 million and will include four hotels, an aquatic center, tennis facility and indoor mountain biking park.

But this time, even more is at stake.

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Schaefer brings tenacity, ambition to second state Senate campaign

1962 words / The Columbia Missourian

COLUMBIA — Kurt Schaefer doesn’t mind giving advice, but he’d rather be the one making decisions.

The incumbent 19th District senator learned this about himself after advising countless legislators and policy makers as a prosecutor in the Missouri Attorney General’s office.

“After a while, it could get frustrating to see them not taking our advice, especially on policy issues,” Schaefer said. In 2007, he decided to fix that. He’d try to make the laws himself.

Schaefer, a Republican, ran for state Senate in 2008 and beat the incumbent Democrat, Chuck Graham, whose favorability sank after his drunken driving arrest the previous October.

Now Schaefer, who has become chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is running for re-election against Democrat Mary Still, a two-term 25th District representative in the Missouri House.

It is rare for a Republican to represent the Senate district that includes Columbia, which politically leans to the left. Schaefer, who won by fewer than 400 votes in 2008, was the first Republican to take the district since at least 1979. If he wins in November, it would be the first time a Republican would serve two terms in the 19th District seat, he said.

Self-reliance

“My wife told me she’d leave me if I ever ran for office,” he said with a grin last week from his corner office at Lathrop and Gage, the Jefferson City law office where he is a partner. Schaefer left his post as a state prosecuting attorney to join the firm, which is based in Kansas City, with offices around the country.

Schaefer passed a rainbow-colored plastic slinky back-and-forth from hand to hand. The Lathrop and Gage logo is wearing off the side of the prop he often uses to keep his hands moving while he talks.

He and his wife, Stacia Schaefer, joke about her ultimatum now, but running for office was a big decision at the time. Stacia Schaefer had grown up in Jefferson City and gone to school with one of the daughters of former Missouri governor and U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft. She saw firsthand how life could get complicated for family members of public figures.

“But I don’t think it has to be that way,” Kurt Schaefer said. After much discussion, they agreed that he would run, and they would turn the experience into a learning opportunity for their three children: Max, 14; Wolf, 11; and Lena, 7.

Kurt Schaefer reasoned that their kids could learn a lot more about how government works by watching their dad than they could from school. So far, he’s pleased with how it’s worked out.

“We put age-appropriate expectations on the kids. I think they’re very mature for their age,” Schaefer said.

The family lives in a modest red ranch-style home they had built two years ago on the south side of Columbia, on 11 acres at the corner of the historic Douglass Farm. Abby, their 9-year-old mutt, circles the hilltop field every morning and shies away from the coyotes they frequently hear at night.

The Schaefer couple lived in an updated slave cabin on the farm when they first moved back from Vermont. It was small but fully modernized, and having lived in rural New England, the farm’s atmosphere suited their pace.

But the cabin felt too small after their first child was born. The Schaefers moved to a more modern development in Columbia and kept in touch with the Douglass family, from whom they eventually bought the land where their current house was built.

On an autumn Friday evening, Max and Wolf pack for an overnight scouting trip they’ll take the next day, and Lena turns white tissues into Halloween ghosts that she tapes onto the walls around the open-concept living area. An online music station featuring Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, not too loud, pipes lounge music from the living room, where wide windows offer a view of the autumn leaves in the surrounding woods.

Schaefer grew up the youngest of five siblings near St. Louis, in Town and Country. He describes his parents as both “great” and “fairly eccentric.” They traveled extensively as a family — Schaefer had been to all 48 continental states plus Canada and Mexico by the time he was 18.

Ambition

Schaefer took up bass guitar at 13 and continued to play through college at MU. His band, Third Uncle (named after a Brian Eno tune), performed original songs in clubs around Columbia in the mid- to late-1980s.

“Our music was kind of comparable to the Smiths, or Echo and the Bunnymen. But I like all kinds of music,” Schaefer said.

He said he thinks Columbia’s music scene has changed a lot over the years. “Back then, we’d form a band just for the sake of an opening gig, to play something like all 1950s country covers,” he said.

The Blue Note was still at its original location on Business Loop 70 when Schaefer started working there. By the time he left town for law school, he had worked his way from doorman to bartender to manager.

“It was so narrow behind the bar that there was really only room for three or four of us at a time,” Schaefer said. But customers would line up five or six deep. “You’ve got to be able to do multiple things at once,” he said.

Richard King, the owner, would tell them all to never make an empty-handed trip.

“If you’re going to the one end of the bar to get a bottle of beer, you better have something in your hands on the way down,” Schaefer remembered. It’s a lesson well-suited for someone with a constant need to move.

King described the scene as “one big happy family” in the Blue Note’s early days. “We all believed in the music,” he said. But he was not surprised when Schaefer left town to attend Vermont Law School.

“That’s what ambitious people do. They move on,” King said. The friends kept in touch, and they reconnected when Schaefer returned to Columbia.

If Schaefer’s move into law didn’t surprise King, his shift to politics did.

“I was stunned,” King said. He recalled the Christmas party in 2007 when Schaefer shared his intention to run for Senate as a Republican.

“But you’re not a Republican!” King remembered saying. The revelation underscored what their relationship had been, and would continue to be, about: Music. Friendship. Not politics.

Schaefer, unfazed by his friend’s surprise, asked him to put up a yard sign with his name on it. King agreed without hesitation.

“But that does mean I’ll have to put up an Obama sign right next to yours,” he warned. As long as his own name was up there, Schaefer said, he didn’t mind a bit.

Schaefer said he always has been fiscally conservative, and he has long held an interest in politics. After taking a year off from college to backpack through Europe, he returned to MU to study geopolitics. But the professor he had hoped would become his mentor retired, so Schaefer shifted to physical geography, instead. This eventually led to his interest in environmental law.

While in college, Schaefer met Stacia Wyrick. He eventually traded the Blue Note for law school and music for love. He sold his last guitar — a Rickenbacker 4001 — to buy an engagement ring, a square diamond from Betz Jewelers on Broadway. Soon after, the two were bound for Vermont.

Stacia Schaefer got into design at a small, elite publishing house. Kurt Schaefer earned a juris doctorate in 1995 and a master’s in environmental law, magna cum laude, in 1996.

Politics & policy

In many ways, Schaefer’s path of career and family provided the tempo for his evolving political identity.

“Lawyers deal with the law, which is just codification of public policy. They’re all amateur political experts. And every lawyer thinks they know how to run a campaign. And they don’t, by the way,” he said.

But he would learn this later. First, he had another surprise in store.

Schaefer had taken a job with the attorney general’s office, assuming he’d be placed in the environmental division. Instead, they placed him — over much protest — in criminal prosecution, which he was sure he wouldn’t like. Within two months, Schaefer was converted.

“You’re in court all the time, and it’s you and a judge and a jury, and you’re on your own,” he said. “I like the adrenaline. I like the fact that everything is live and spontaneous.”

The Schaefers started their family while he was working at the attorney general’s office, and as their children grew, he began to look at public policy in still another way. Their children attended a magnet school where the curriculum for each student was built around an Individually Guided Education plan, or IGE. If a kindergartner already understood math, he could study with the first-graders, for example.

“But with MAP testing and No Child Left Behind, that took away some of that flexibility,” Schaefer said. “Instead, all third-graders have to be operating on the same page. It makes you wonder whether it’s a good idea,” he said. “And it’s not.”

Rather than protest educational regulations, Schaefer wanted to be in a position to change them.

He likens his role as a senator to that of a prosecuting attorney: “You just have to learn the facts, remember them and craft that into an argument,” he said.

To learn those facts, Schaefer tunes his ear.

Kristin Sohl has worked with Schaefer and other legislators in her role as a child health advocate. She is a pediatrician and medical director of MU’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. She also created a program called Community Advocacy Through Resident Education, or CARE, which connects medical residents with legislators to talk about child health in Missouri.

“Legislators have said to me that plumbers unions have better advocacy in the statehouse,” she said. And when doctors do talk to lawmakers, she said, it tends to be about reimbursements or tort reform instead of health.

“The idea is to break the ice, to keep doctors from being nervous about talking to legislators down the road,” she said. Running the program keeps Sohl in touch with legislators, too.

She asks each legislator to meet about four times a year with one resident. Most of the time, she said, they’ll spend up to an hour. Schaefer has participated from the start, as have Chris Kelly and Stephen Webber, both Democratic Missouri House representatives for Boone County. Still also participated in the program early on, Sohl said.

“Kurt Schaefer has always been an absolute advocate for children,” Sohl said. “He meets with us, and is always willing to step up. He listens to residents and helps us navigate the Capitol and the legislative process.”

Strategy

Schaefer enjoys better name recognition now, as an incumbent, than he did in 2008.

At that time, he said, while he had plenty of connections in Jefferson City from his work at the attorney general’s office and at Lathrop and Gage, the people who knew him in town were mostly bar and restaurant owners. It wasn’t a bad group of people to know, he pointed out, because between them all, they know everybody else. Nevertheless, he had a lot of work to do.

At first, he couldn’t get funding from the Senate Majority Fund, so he raised about $100,000 himself from friends and family, he said. He eventually did get some financial backing from his party, but Graham’s campaign still outspent him.

“It’s not a good position to be in, because you don’t have the resources to get your message out,” he said. “And I don’t plan on finding myself in that position again anytime soon.”

It is certainly not a disadvantage Schaefer suffers this year. His campaign has brought in nearly $1 million as of the most recent campaign filings, compared to less than $250,000 by his opponent.

Money isn’t all that’s changed since 2008. Schaefer did some of his own canvassing then, going door-to-door to introduce himself and ask for votes in person. This year, he said, he has little time for it, between his law practice and ongoing work as the Senate Appropriations Committee chair.

Most legislators are done with state work when the session ends, but Schaefer stays in contact with the committee staff every day. He’ll often stop by the Capitol three times a week to consult on revenue and spending estimates or to get updates on interest rates for potential future bond issues, for example.

This level of involvement is a good match for Schaefer’s interests.

“Most senators are the political people, and their chief of staff is a policy wonk,” Schaefer said, but his relationship with Yancy Williams, his chief of staff, is just the opposite.

“I’m the policy person, and he’s the political person,” he said. Williams is on hiatus from Schaefer’s staff during the election in order to consult for the campaign.

If Schaefer wins re-election, term limits automatically would make his second term his last in the Senate. But that may not make this his final campaign.

“I’m just going to get through this election — knock on wood and don’t jinx it,” he said. “But I always like to do new things. So win or lose, I’m sure I’ll look at other things. We’ll see.”

Fearlessness drives Mary Still’s campaign for 19th District Senate seat

2085 words / The Columbia Missourian 

COLUMBIA — Mary Still is not afraid to lose.

“If I were afraid to lose, I would not have run in this race,” Still said last week.

The two-term 25th District state representative from Columbia opens the door of her paned-glass sunroom to let in a little stormy afternoon breeze. Still, a Democrat, is well aware of the odds she faces in her bid to unseat Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, in the 19th District.

Schaefer’s campaign finance war chest outweighs Still’s by a factor of almost 4 to 1. As one of 34 senators, his name recognition also outpaces that of Still, who is one of 163 representatives of the Missouri House. And her opponent’s chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful roles in the General Assembly, makes him all the more formidable.

But Still is not easily intimidated. And she is determined to have a Democrat represent Columbia in the Missouri Senate.

“I can better reflect the values of this community,” she said in a soft Arkansas drawl.

Campaign staffers, friends and volunteers are stationed in her spacious, light-filled kitchen. They work with their laptops here, or from desks at Still’s memorabilia-strewn campaign headquarters on Old Route 63 or walking door-to-door in neighborhoods around Columbia and Boone and Cooper counties.

This is Still’s third campaign for a seat in the legislature, and it’s clear this isn’t her first rodeo.

Decision

Still grew up in Fordyce, Ark., the seat of Dallas County in south-central Arkansas, where her father was the city’s prosecuting attorney for 10 years and the district attorney for about 20. Her mother became the first woman to serve on the local school board, Still said.

“I grew up working on Dad’s races,” she said.

Later, as a wife, Still campaigned again, for her husband. Russell Still, a partner in the law firm Harlan, Harlan and Still, served on the Columbia School Board from 1996 to 2005, including two years as president.

In 2007, Mary Still took early retirement from her work in the governor’s office. She meant to settle down. But four days later, then-state Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, announced her campaign for U.S. Congress, meaning she would not seek her 25th District seat again.

That got Still thinking.

At first, she had a hard time seeing herself in the role of an elected official. For decades she had been on another side — first as a journalist, later as communications director for then-Attorney General Jay Nixon and Gov. Bob Holden.

“And I just felt like, I know the issues. I had been in this community for 25 years. I know all the people,” she said. The other candidates for Baker’s seat were “fine,” Still said, but she thought she was a better fit.

She told her husband first. “He thought, ‘Yes!’ He was very supportive,” Still said. But a touch of reluctance persisted.

“I remember being kind of afraid to mention it to my friends. I just felt like they would think that was ridiculous,” Still said. “I just hadn’t seen myself in that role, and I didn’t think they had either, so I was a little shy about saying I was going to do it.”

A group of friends was at her house one night — Still loves to entertain, if not cook — when she shared her intention.

“They were supportive, too,” Still said. It was one of her friends, a former insurance commissioner who is also a musician, who suggested Still’s campaign slogan: “Still the one,” the title of a 1970s hit song by the band Orleans.

Still ran for Baker’s seat and won in 2008, then won re-election in 2010. Missouri’s legislative term limits allow up to four consecutive two-year House terms, so she could have run again to keep that position in 2012.

“I had a perfectly wonderful Democratic district that I was safe in. I doubt I would have had any opposition,” Still said. Instead, she aimed to unseat Schaefer.

Unafraid to lose, Still is basing her campaign on that fearlessness and the values behind it.

“I am not afraid to stand up for what is right. … This is not the be-all, end-all for me,” Still said. “I’m not going to be afraid to stand up to wealthy special interests. And I’m not going to be afraid to take a politically inconvenient vote. I’m not hand-tied by my party.”

Campaign 

It’s another blustery autumn day, but this time, the storm has passed.

Still, her campaign manager and two volunteers have split into two teams to canvass a west-Columbia neighborhood. They are grateful for the weather’s timing as clouds give way to blue skies and sun.

A friend drives and doles out the names and addresses of potential voters on their list. Still’s passenger-side door is open as soon as the car stops, and she’s halfway out before her friend has put the car in park. Still leans in.

“Where am I going? Who am I talking to?” She always has a name to say when anyone opens a door.

“This is my favorite part,” she says between houses.

Still enjoys the scenery — a pond by an old farmhouse, an English cottage garden, the way any remaining gray clouds make the autumn colors more vibrant. But mostly, she says, she likes talking to people because she always learns from them.

Like the teacher she met once who was just getting home from work at 7 o’clock on a Friday night. Or the young man today who’s just moved from Salt Lake City to take a job with Schneider Electric. Or the Muslim boy who expects his parents to vote but doesn’t say for whom.

Four years ago while canvassing, Still approached the home of an elderly man who was outside gardening. She introduced herself to Gene Ridenhour, a retired general surgeon and recent widower. The two got to talking — about family, about gardens — and have stayed in touch ever since.

“I was just very impressed with her principles and her demeanor and the way she discusses things. She’s just a good person,” Ridenhour said. “She goes to the point real quickly. She’s very sincere. She just represents a lot of good things about people.”

And they both like plants. “That’s one of the relationships we had in terms of sharing,” he said. “The flowers and bushes and shrubs and trees.”

Ridenhour, who does not consider himself a political animal, thinks of Still not as a politician but as a friend.

“I’m just getting to be an old man and worried about the future of the country,” he said. “I’m to the point where I dislike politicians because they make all sorts of crazy laws, and they’re all for themselves.”

“I don’t think Mary’s that kind of person. She has a husband who’s a lawyer, and they’re doing fine,” he said. “You can tell from her home that’s she’s just a classy lady. It’s so elegant but yet warm.”

Still and her husband raised their two girls, now grown, in a historic house near Columbia Country Club. At 3,751 square feet and with nine rooms, including four bedrooms, the large house is made cozy by patterned rugs, antique wooden furniture and cushioned couches. Crystal glasses are set out in a corner of the dining room, apparently ready to use.

“And it’s surrounded by nature,” Ridenhour said. He’s helping to keep it that way.

Still tells the story of her friend planting a row of cypress trees at her house two years in a row, because the first batch didn’t survive the summer drought.

“That is a man of great faith,” Still says. “Here he is, 80 years old, and he’s planting trees.”

Conviction 

During Still’s first term as a state representative, an MU graduate student in public affairs gave her a call. His name was Michael Butler.

“I want to work for you,” he said. Still was flattered, but said she didn’t have the budget to hire more staff. So Butler offered to volunteer.

“I said, ‘Come on down!’” Still recalled.

Butler ended up working as Still’s legislative assistant when the position opened up, and she credits him with teaching her how annual percentage rates work — the cornerstone of her efforts to reform the payday loan industry.

“Keeping up with her as an LA was challenging,” Butler said. “She’s energetic. She’s very organized. And she taught me the importance of media.”

Still is also forgiving, he said, recalling the time he sent the wrong letter to her press list.

“Oh, no!” she said over and over, hands to her head, as soon as they realized the error. But then she moved on.

Butler still cringes thinking of it, but Still said she can’t even remember it happening.

“She was empowering,” Butler said. “She still allowed me to send things out and had me call the media to give them a heads up about what had happened.”

In addition to showing him how to recover, Butler said, Still taught him how to recruit supporters and cosponsors for legislation. And ultimately, she inspired him to run for office last year. He is now, at 26, running unopposed to represent the 79th District in St. Louis, Butler’s hometown.

“I’m a person who believes one person can make a difference,” Still said.

Her closest inspiration is her own mother, whom she credits as having integrated the school system in Fordyce — an accomplishment highly unpopular with many people in the town.

“She was instrumental in making it happen in a very smooth way,” Still said, alluding to a “very interesting” story that she refuses to tell on the record.

“The first thing she had to do was get a white teacher to agree to teach in the black school.” Still’s mother eventually persuaded the minister’s wife to do so, using what Still calls an “unconventional approach.”

Beyond that, all she’ll reveal is that she learned her mother was “a very clever person.”

In Still’s own legislative work, there has been more opportunity for conviction than for compromise, she said, but she will compromise when it’s reasonable and genuine.

“I’m in the minority. And they’re not going to let me do anything,” she said. “I would love to be in the position to compromise. If they don’t want you to get anything passed, they’re not going to be working with you.”

Still has tried since she took office to reform the payday loan industry. She also has promoted a tax on tobacco. Her legislation didn’t pass, but it was very similar to Proposition B on the Nov. 6 ballot.

As a senator, the Democrat might hold more leverage than she has in the House. “I can filibuster!” she said.

The method of holding up a legislative hearing is only allowed in the Senate. But a filibuster only works until it’s overridden by a two-thirds majority of Senate colleagues.

Role of government 

Still has said repeatedly that the “deck” in Jefferson City is stacked against the middle class.

“We want to restore the contract between Missouri and working families,” she said at a League of Women Voters forum. “To do that, we must be fighting for higher wages, affordable education and opportunities for all — young women and minorities included. We must be fighting for jobs, not kowtowing to special interests.”

And herein lies one of the fundamental characteristics that distinguishes Still’s political philosophy from that of her opponent, she said: her perception of the proper role of government in society.

“I think you have to have an efficient and effective government, and you can get so small that you’re neither,” Still said.

She pointed out how much the Columbia area’s economy depends on state government funding. And she thought back to her father’s mother, who kept framed pictures of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy on the wall of her upstairs hall back in Fordyce.

Still’s paternal grandmother was widowed with seven children when Still’s dad was about 10. Her grandmother collected Social Security and was able to send Still’s two aunts to college. Her father and uncles pursued higher education through the GI Bill, Still said. Three went on to become lawyers. One became a doctor, and another pursued a career in the military.

“I see now, looking back, what a challenge that was for her to raise seven children as a widow,” Still said. “So you have to realize that government played an important role in that family’s life and their ability to earn an income, pay taxes and give back.”

IN THEIR OWN WORDS: Sarah “Jonesey” Johnson

Interview as part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri’s next generation in challenging times / 3734 words / The Columbia Missourian 

ST. LOUIS — Sarah Johnson, 38, is happily employed at Left Bank Books, an independent bookstore with two locations in St. Louis. She goes by “Jonesey” and lives alone with her two cats, Ethel and Boris. I interviewed Jonesey at Pi, a restaurant in the Central West End, across the corner from Left Bank Books, where she was headed to work later that morning. She blogs at www.joneseythewordslinger.blogspot.com. She tells her story.

woman between two stacks of books looks up

It’s a really odd little story. I realized when I was 34 that what I wanted to do with the rest of my life was to be a librarian. And I wanted to learn how to fix books. And I really wanted to do that in places like after Hurricane Katrina, and after the flood in Iowa. Libraries fall through a lot of monetary aid cracks, yet they are an incredibly important part of any community.

They’re part of the legitimacy of communities because they provide a sense of history when you get to books and records and the things that prove your right to exist in a place. Things like deeds, legal records, the original maps people drew to define the space you live in. And because our culture is so legalistic, we need the paper trail.

Humans express themselves visually, and one way of visually expressing yourself is in the written language. It also provides cultural legitimacy in the sense that other people like me have written books about the things I am experiencing. So that puts me on a spectrum. And if I’m on a spectrum, then I exist. If I can place myself somewhere measurable, then I have a history. If I have a history, then I have a present. If I have a present, then I have a future.

I have one younger sister, five-and-a-half years younger. She is married to her second husband. They live in Utah. She has a 13-year-old daughter by her first marriage and a 7-year-old boy by her second. My niece lives here in Eureka with her father and stepmother.

I figured I’d come to St. Louis. I wanted to be here while my niece went through high school. I have no children. I’ve been married and divorced twice. I live with cats. I knit. I read books. I’m really happy.

Growing up

I grew up in the most southwestern neighborhood in Chicago. It’s called Beverly/Morgan Park. The neighborhood was a very welcoming Irish Catholic Democratic neighborhood.

I lived, literally, on the wrong side of the tracks, even though both of my parents went to work in offices, had titles, wore ties. There was a lot of the standard husband who worked in a union job, had done his apprenticeship. Probably lived within three or four blocks of where his parents lived. Wife stayed home with the kids. Now, staying home with the kids means running around after them and taking them to school. But that was most everybody in the neighborhood, except for us.

My dad’s from Lincoln, Nebraska. My mom’s from Blencoe, in western Iowa. It was a safe neighborhood that had a lot of families and a lot of churches. And, that was the deal. That was where we bought.

Libraries

I lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, for 12 years. I was working at the public library there at the time, and one of my co-workers and I, who were really good friends, started thinking about how to run a library well. You have to answer the question, what is a library? Which is a really, really big and difficult question it turns out nobody actually knows the answer to — even though everybody acts like they do. There are so many answers.

A library is a place where the books are. A library is a place where you go to use the Internet. A library is the place where you look up things. Where you ask people questions. Where you meet with people from your community. Where you study. The best definition that I’ve ever heard is that a library is the place where you have access to information and therefore can gain knowledge. Because a library isn’t really about books anymore.

Now I work in a bookstore. I don’t believe that bookstores, especially independent bookstores, are just about books. I believe that they are about access to (good) books.

Especially a place like Left Bank or an independent bookstore, this isn’t about convenience. We don’t have Westerns and romance novels and a lot of the (popular) series. We have a lot of really good books that are written by people you might not have heard of. Books that would be harder to find in Walmart, in a grocery store, or the newsstand, or your local school library.

poster reading "Indie Booksellers Hold Up the Sky" hangs next to a shelf of mystery books
Left Bank Books in St. Louis (photo by Rick Agran and Hilary Niles)

I love what happens when you open a book, and your world just shifts.

I’m reading a travelogue right now called “All the Roads Are Open,” by Annemarie Schwarzenbach. In 1939, she and a companion drove across Afghanistan from Switzerland. They drove this old Ford, and they drove through Iran, which was still Persia, parts of it anyway, and through Afghanistan, into India. She describes the Hindu Kush, and I have to work to remember that I’m not in the mountains when I’m reading it.

The thing I really enjoy about good writing — that moment when you are sucked into a book — is that I am allowed to experience someone else’s confident and clear perspective that I might never have had otherwise. I am challenged to leave my own perspectives behind. I think that the more we narrow our world, the more barren it becomes.

And I think that that’s something that’s very easy to do when bestsellers are all that are thrown at you, when the newest and the shiniest are all that are available.

That’s like so many of the messages that we get about fitting into a very well-defined mold. And that path leads you to … some nirvana of success? I don’t know. I’ve never been able to figure that one out.

I haven’t lived with a television for a really long time. In Lincoln I had a roommate who was like a cable addict. So that was eight months in 2007. And then before that, it had been, three years? I had a television that was hooked up to a DVD player, so we watched DVDs.

But I don’t take the news. I don’t take newspapers. I don’t buy them, I don’t subscribe to them. I don’t pick them up. I will occasionally read The Wall Street Journal. And that’s always an interesting experience because I get really angry. I feel like the news-reading public are being told things that are not justified. I always wonder, what aren’t we being told? I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I do think there are times when you look at the paper or you listen to the news and why is that senator so important today? What really happened that that guy or that woman is so important, instead of something else going on?

Particularly because it is an election year, and I really despise what happens when people start slinging mud at each other. I think they become very small, and these are the people who want the biggest job in the country. They are so diminished in their behavior that I don’t even want to be part of the process. Even though really, I do want to be part of the process! Because I do believe in active involvement in a democracy. I think that’s the only way that it functions. So election years always challenge me.

Family

My dad was a geographer for the Corps of Engineers. My mom worked in the training and implementation department of an insurance company, and they trained people how to use computers. My dad quit the Corps and got his MBA, became a travel agent. Then my mom’s department was disbanded. But she had always loved teaching people how to use their computers, so she started her own business.

One night she was overbooked, so my dad took a class of hers. And he just got bit. He loved the teaching, decided that was what he wanted to do. So in 1992, he moved to Wichita, Kan., with my sister. My mom stayed in Chicago with the business and my dad got his master’s degree in anthropology at Wichita State University, and taught his way through.

I moved to Lincoln in ’98. I was 25. In ’99 my dad, my sister and my niece moved to Lincoln. My dad started his doctoral program. He started in anthropology, but he ultimately got his degree in geography from University of Nebraska-Lincoln. And is now teaching!

My mom’s business kept going. We finally sold the house in Chicago so she got this little apartment in La Grange Park, Ill. We got this delighted phone call from her, right after we moved her. The message was, “It’s 70 degrees below zero with the wind chill and I’m not paying heat on an eight-room house!”

Then in 2003 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. So she moved to Nebraska and lived with my dad again. They’ve been married for 43 years. And they’re really good friends. They get each other. And so yeah, they lived apart. My mom’s convinced that’s one of the reasons that it worked, was that they were both only children, so the idea of being alone was not awful. And it didn’t challenge the fundamentals of their marriage in any way.

I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do what I wanted to do in Lincoln. My career, socially — I had just hit stall there.

So I asked my folks if I could live with them for a year once my dad got his degree and they went to wherever he was going to go and teach. They said sure, which was just an amazing gift. We ended up moving to this small town in northwestern Missouri — 11,000 people. Maryville, Mo.

That’s a really small town. A lot of parks. No sidewalks. There were like six (independently owned) restaurants, and we went to all of them within the space of a month. Everything else was fast food. It was horrifying. The farmers market was a joke.

It’s a culture of poverty. During the Depression, people worked really hard. They didn’t know they were poor. Everybody had a garden, nobody had shoes. Everybody rode horses to school. I volunteered for the historical society for a little while, watching videos of interviews they had done with people who had lived during the Depression and World War II. They were just living, surviving, making it happen, with their families, going to church, going to school. They had a very uncomplicated moral code. And people lived by it.

I’m sure that there was separation based on class and what not, but these people were not lazy! I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if it was the car. I don’t know if you can point to any one sort of governmental thing. I don’t know if you can point to any one economic thing. But I do know that the city now, just Kawasaki and Energizer are the two big employers outside of the university.

The separation between town and gown is palpable. There is a huge population of south Indian students, from Hyderabad. And the town has done nothing to welcome them. The only grocery stores where you can get Indian food is in Kansas City.

Religion

I grew up in this Congregationalist church. It was interdenominational. It was a covenant church, and so that meant that we had a covenant with each other, and with God.

The neighborhood that I grew up in was predominantly Catholic, St. Barnabas Parish. There was a Unitarian church up the hill, there was a Good Sam church that met in the Methodist Church. There were Episcopalian churches. There was every Protestant denomination that you could think of. So my experience of religion started as my experience of church. I left the church sort of slowly because it just seemed really hypocritical. I saw my parents doing what they said they believed in, and I saw other people’s parents not.

My parents said that they believed in charity, and they volunteered to teach people English. We bought Christmas presents and brought them to poor people. They walked the walk. Like anybody, they’re imperfect. But still there was this idea of consistency. And they were really good hosts and they were always willing to talk to people, which was something that I saw other members of my church not doing.

Then when I was 16, I had accidentally dyed my hair purple. It was supposed to be burgundy. And it was Lent.

Sign reading "more books downstairs" hangs from the ceiling of a bookstore
Left Bank Books in St. Louis (photo by Rick Agran and Hilary Niles)

So we’re at Lenten dinner. I’m around people I’ve known since I was 6 years old. And I go sit at a table with some of them, and they did not acknowledge me. They wouldn’t look at me, they wouldn’t make space for me. It was like I didn’t exist.

I spent a few years being really angry with Christians. And then I got over it. Sort of slowly. It was sort of a series of things that happened, beginning with a very real sense of hypocrisy in my own behavior. There was this sort of parental voice in the back of my head that you don’t really want to listen to but that you know is saying the right thing. I mean just being angry at somebody for having faith. What’s the point?

There was also this lack of understanding. I was not trying to reach out and find out what people actually believed. I was labeling them — based on a label that they had chosen. Which is incredibly discompassionate.

And then the mother of a friend passed away. She was diabetic. She went into a coma and never came out. And I really, really liked her. She was always really sweet to his friends because he was an odd kid, like me, and so didn’t really have a ton of friends. And another person had passed away from my church. He had been really good to all of us kids, and he had died the day after my friend’s mom died. So I flew back to Chicago and ended up going to two funerals in one day.

The first service was for the man at my church. He had lived a good long life and he was involved in everything. And we had all known him. He was nice. He was thoughtful. He knew all the kids. But the service was this sterile recitation of his accomplishments.

Our religion was defined almost as “not Catholic.” That was as close as you ever got to understanding what your relationship to Christ was supposed to be. It was like, “You are not Catholic. So, whatever a Catholic believes, you don’t!” Which is really interesting to me because we lived in a Catholic neighborhood. We all had Catholic friends. But we didn’t really understand them.

We actually had a fairly well integrated neighborhood. The big groups were black and white. But because of how I experienced the neighborhood, to me the big groups were Protestant, Catholic and Baptist. In my mind, you were defined by what church you went to on a Sunday morning, and what youth group you went to on a Wednesday afternoon. And whether or not you sang in choir. That was how I parsed everybody.

Now, if I define people, it’s by the books they read. But that’s only in the store, and that’s only when I get to know people.

I define people based on whether they shop for convenience or for value. I take public transport, I walk. I don’t have a car. I don’t have a credit card. My experience of life is incredibly different than 95 percent of the people that I meet, just because I don’t experience advertisements, television shows or red lights.

Divorce

I ended up on the bottom end of women-who-get-divorced statistics. I owned a house out in Nebraska that I eventually lost. The house foreclosed in 2005. I was able to afford the house with my husband when I bought it. The mortgage we got, the interest rate, everything, that wasn’t the problem. It was the other stuff that was involved and we couldn’t sustain. We didn’t know enough. We shouldn’t have bought the house. Shouldn’t have been married!

But, whatever. I was the one who had the job. He had just started his own business. So the bank gave me the mortgage. When “we” split up and “we” lost the house, I lost the house. And I didn’t have a car. So when I kicked him out, I lost the car.

Left Bank

I love this job. I have no intention of leaving. And I’m about to get benefits. Health, dental and vision.

My credit score is something that I’ve been thinking about in a very real way because this year, the foreclosure drops off. But I still have student loan debt that I have to deal with and some other little things.

I had a job for three years as a secretary at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. So I had retirement built up, but when I quit that job, it was right around the time I was getting my divorce, and I was just so burnt out and I needed a break, and so I cleaned out my retirement and just took care of myself for six months. But that was it: that was the only time I have ever even had a meaningful retirement account.

It’s small steps. And I’m sort of starting from square one except for that I’m actually really happy in what I do, and the people that I work with, and the city that I’m in.

I didn’t expect to love this city. I didn’t expect to find this job. I expected to work as a temp in offices for a couple of years, build up some savings, pay off some of my debts, get a fancy-schmancy apartment, you know. Be stylish. And start taking book-binding classes. Then learn how to restore books. That’s a slow process; books are not fast. And then this came along.

It shifted everything and slowed it down a little bit more. But it gave me a place to actually start from. Build relationships and then build a life that is compassionate in a way that I want it to be compassionate.

I recognize that I don’t share the same future ideals that a lot of people do. I don’t necessarily see security in a home, because I have lost a home. I don’t see security in a car, because it’s so transient. I don’t see security in money. And I don’t necessarily even want a whole lot of security because I feel like you give up a lot.

A lot of people give up the freedom to make their own decisions. About with whom they’re going to be friends, what they’re going to do with their money. About where they go and what they do.

When you own a home, it’s the thing that you do to establish yourself and to be safe. You have to ensure that the house is safe, one way or the other. Which means that you might or might not be effectively using your skills. Or happy at all. Or healthy at all, because you’re working for security, in a job that you know is not going to go away in order for you to have a home that provides you with security and a car that means that you don’t have to take the bus, so you are secure, you are safe from being late for everything. Because you have your own means of transportation!

And in a larger context, you have to support policies that allow you to maintain your sense of security. You don’t want somebody taking your job, you don’t want somebody taking your children’s job. You don’t want somebody taking your tax dollars.

People are dying all over the world because of wars that are fought in order to secure access to resources like copper, magnesium, rare earths, oils, things that are used in all of our stuff, in order to allow us to maintain our lifestyles. As if that’s the best, like we have the right.

And that was where I came to ultimately with this idea of the American Dream. My real problem with it is not that people want to have a better life for their children than they had for themselves. Not that they want to pass on their ideas of democracy and of freedom. It’s that, in this country, the messages we get require that everything be about winning. And there is no such thing as winning without somebody else losing.

view across the corner from the bookstore, lit up at night
Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Mo. (photo by Rick Agran and Hilary Niles)

Living the dream

Creative resourcefulness and community. That’s my dream. To be a part of a community, to be allowed to be creative in that community, a positive member of it, and to be resource responsible. It comes from what my grandmother told me, how my parents were raised, how I was raised. We had a garden in Chicago. They canned. My parents both sewed. We read books, talked to each other. We watched television one night a week.

At no point did I feel like we were not being American. I never felt like we were doing something subversive. It was only when I got into the outside world that I realized that, apparently, that was wrong!

Take responsibility for your own action. That is something that I would really like to see. If you want things to change, you change them. For yourself. Because nobody else is going to do it for you.

We have the right to make so many of our own decisions, and yet we don’t do it, at all. What we buy. What news we listen to. What books we read. How we read them. The music we listen to.

So that’s where I ultimately get to: I have the right to define my life in a way that doesn’t make me somebody I don’t respect. In theory, that’s the American Dream, right? I get to define my own life.

Night Shift: Midnight Country

“Not just radio. Community radio,” they say at KOPN, where volunteers have been keeping the frequency live since March 3, 1973.

Part music and part talk, the station’s programming is diverse and sometimes controversial. There’s a waiting list for new DJs, whose first chance to get on the air is often in the middle of the night.

radiostation(audio)

Woody Adkins, 48, started “Midnight Country” in 2000.

He’ll play some current country music — but only if it sounds traditional.


Rabies? Rabies! Rabies.

Public radio feature / 15:55 minutes / Here and Now, produced at WBUR in Boston, Mass., and broadcast nationwide 

It’s rabies season, and strange things happen. We hear a cautionary tale from Arizona runner Michelle Felicetta, who survived a fox attack last fall, and we speak with Dr. Charles Rupprecht, chief of the rabies program at the Centers for Disease Control.

[audio:http://nilesmedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Rabies-Season.mp3]

As a part-time production intern at Here and Now, I was responsible for generating and pitching story ideas, sourcing interview subjects, pre-reporting for the host, facilitating and editing the interview, and packaging the piece for our daily live broadcast.

Financial Literacy for Kids

Public radio feature / 3:51 minutes / Here and Now, produced at WBUR in Boston, Mass., and broadcast nationwide

Public school students in Tennessee don’t just learn how to balance a checkbook, but how to plan for retirement and negotiate a car payment, too. Les Greer, who teaches at Riverdale High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, joins us to review a lesson plan.

[audio:http://nilesmedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Financial-Literacy-for-Kids.mp3]

As a part-time production intern at Here and Now, I was responsible for generating and pitching story ideas, sourcing interview subjects, pre-reporting for the host, facilitating and editing the interview, and packaging the piece for our daily live broadcast.