Subscribe for 99¢
Paul McKee

Paul J. McKee Jr. of McEagle Properties LLC talks with St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporters near the intersection of Pine and North 23rd streets in St. Louis on Dec. 6, 2011. Photo by Erik M. Lunsford, elunsford@post-dispatch.com

When the Missouri Department of Economic Development raised red flags on one of Paul McKee’s north St. Louis purchases, it clawed back nearly $2 million in state tax credits and blocked a similarly structured deal nearby from receiving them.

But at least one comparable deal flew under the radar.

A Department of Economic Development official testified Tuesday that McKee and his companies never gave back the almost $2.5 million in tax credits issued for the $4.9 million sale of a building on North 15th Street — even though they owned it for only a couple of months before deeding it back to the seller.

“There’s no process for paying it back, but I’m more than happy to sit down with the state” and discuss the tax credits issued on the purchase of the 15th Street building, McKee testified Tuesday when asked if he would pay back the credits on the 2012 sale. The transaction was unwound a few months later in 2013.

The transaction is the latest McKee deal for north St. Louis property to come under scrutiny in a trial that began last week in St. Louis Circuit Court to determine the value of the Buster Brown building at Jefferson and Cass avenues. The city took possession of the building through eminent domain to assemble a site for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s western headquarters.

Because the building’s former owner, Jim Osher, sold the building to McKee in 2011, it allowed the city to access documents from McKee’s companies as Osher battled the city over the value of the building for the last two years.

Now, lawyers for the city say the $3.75 million sale of the Buster Brown building to McKee was a “sham” that inflated the value of the building that Osher had bought for $200,000 in order to split the tax credits issued based on the purchase price. Osher seller-financed the purchase, signed a nonrecourse agreement, and the deal was eventually unwound, giving it back to Osher before the city acquired it.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Sallie Hemenway, a 25-year veteran of the Department of Economic Development who reviewed McKee’s tax credit applications, testified Tuesday.

The trial has often focused on the now-lapsed Distressed Area Land Assemblage tax credit program, which many saw as written specifically for McKee. Out of around $47 million issued before the program expired in 2013, McKee was able to tap it for some $43 million in tax credits to help him buy hundreds of acres in north St. Louis. The program issued tax credits worth half the sale value of real estate and other costs such as interest.

McKee argues that without that program, he wouldn’t have been able to begin assembling part of the acreage that the NGA would ultimately pick for its planned $1.75 billion western headquarters. Yet McKee, a prominent developer who once served on the board of BJC HealthCare and built the WingHaven development in St. Charles County and co-developed NorthPark near Kinloch, has not built anything in the footprint of his long-touted 1,500-acre NorthSide Regeneration project. After more than a decade buying land, he started construction on a gas station and grocery this year.

“Any tax credits we received from the state absolutely went into the project,” McKee testified Tuesday.

A worksheet obtained by the city and created by McKee and Osher showed that McKee paid his companies and attorneys out of the proceeds of selling the tax credits issued on the Buster Brown purchase. The payments listed include just more than $200,000 to McEagle, McKee’s former real estate company, $14,000 for legal fees (McKee uses Stone, Leyton and Gershman as his law firm) and a $41,000 loan placement fee to Minerva Realty Capital.

Once those fees were paid out of the proceeds of the $1.875 million in tax credits issued for Buster Brown, Osher received half of the remaining tax credit proceeds, or $591,000.

In a video deposition played in court of Russell Caplin, a longtime McKee associate and head of Minerva, attorneys asked why, when Osher seller-financed the sale, Caplin was paid $41,000 for a loan placement.

“It’s great work if you can get it,” Caplin replied.

The credits on the Buster Brown purchase were eventually clawed back by the Department of Economic Development by reducing the amount of tax credits issued on future McKee sales. It’s not clear whether the department will take any action on the 15th Street transaction.

Hemenway testified Tuesday that “in hindsight,” the department should have asked for an appraisal on the Buster Brown purchase before issuing credits. But the statute didn’t require it, she said, and McKee’s lawyers were “adamant” it was a normal, arms-length transaction.

And she disagreed with McKee’s testimony that the Land Assemblage tax credit program was solely for land assembly. It should have been used for redevelopment activities, too, Hemenway said.

“The public gains no benefit from an individual gaining access (to) its tax dollars … to simply put land in his or her name,” she said.