Missouri school board president runs unregistered for-profit food business out of nonprofit youth center she directs

(The Lion) — Recently re-elected St. Joseph School District (SJSD) board President LaTonya Williams is running a personal catering business that sold alcohol without a license and continues to operate out of the childcare-related nonprofit where she works.

Emails and documents obtained by The Lion from the city of St. Joseph through a Sunshine request reveal that Williams’ business, Boujee Boards, was operating for months without a health permit or business or alcohol license, while using her nonprofit’s commercial kitchen without permission at a building owned by the city.

That building, the Horace Mann Community Center, is leased by the city to the Bartlett Center, where Williams is executive director. The nonprofit provides daycare, youth programming and other community services.

Williams’ for-profit business, which makes custom charcuterie boards for individual sale or for events, appears to have begun seeking compliance after a complaint was filed with the city on Feb. 14.

“I wanted to express my concerns about a business that is serving food for payment without a business or liquor license,” reads the complaint, obtained by The Lion, naming Boujee Boards and its owner, Williams.

The city contacted Williams two days after the complaint and began a back-and-forth to help her obtain a business license and health permit, according to a summary of related correspondence put together in an email by Assistant Health Director Kendra Bundy.

The main issue, from the city’s perspective, appeared to be that Williams needed approval from Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Office of Childhood, which licenses the Bartlett Center for its child and youth programs, before the city could inspect and approve her private business.

Williams eventually forwarded to the city an email chain between her and Katie Bruggeman, a compliance inspector with DESE, claiming it constituted approval, which the city accepted.

In a March 5 email, Williams asks Bruggeman for “permission to allow the [Bartlett Center] kitchen to be used after hours for building rentals, such as fish fry fundraisers, chili suppers, charcuterie board services, pancake breakfasts, basketball concession stands.”

“They [the city] wanted me to get a statement from licensing saying this is fine for us to continuing [sic] doing- could you do that for us?” Williams finishes her email.

Notably, Williams mentions charcuterie board services in the middle of other possible kitchen uses, but fails to mention the specific reason for her email, namely to get a license from the city for her personal business, Boujee Boards, as all the other correspondence with the city makes clear.

In subsequent replies, Bruggeman says the Bartlett Center’s kitchen can only be used for the listed activities after its licensed hours (6 a.m. to 9 p.m.).

The email chain was then forwarded on March 15 to two city health department officials with a claim from Williams that it constituted an approval:

“Below is the approval from DESE regarding me using the kitchen. The compliance inspector said that as long as it’s after hours of the center, kitchen usage is fine- I’ve included our email correspondence below with her contact information for verification if needed. May I schedule a time for the kitchen to be inspected so I can complete the requirements of the license for Boujee Boards? I appreciate your help!”

City Attorney Lisa Robinson explained in an email to The Lion that this was sufficient for the city to process a health permit and business license in March:

“Ms. Williams worked directly with the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services, Bureau of Childcare, and the Missouri Department of Elementary & Secondary Education, to obtain approval for her business (Boujee Boards) to use space in the Horace Mann Community Center.

“After she received approval from the Missouri Department of Elementary & Secondary Education, via electronic mail, to continue using the Bartlett Center kitchen (located within the Horace Mann Community Center) to store products and prep her boards, a health inspection was conducted by the Health Department.  A health permit and business license were then processed through the Planning and Community Development Department.”

Williams also spoke publicly about how the “city’s been extra easy to work with, the Health Department,” in comments during an April 3 talk to local entrepreneurs, which was livestreamed. “I create the boards at the Bartlett Center and there’s already a commercial inspection for the kitchen at the Bartlett Center.”

One post from Boujee Boards’ Facebook page showed “snack boxes” given to city employees, including health inspectors.

“These are the perfect gift to say, ‘Thank you for your hard work, you are appreciated!’” the post read.

Even with the permit and license, it was still unclear whether the private business could use the kitchen under the Bartlett Center’s lease agreement with the city, which states “no other services shall be provided without the prior written consent and approval of the CITY.”

After The Lion asked Robinson in early May about the lease agreement between the city and the Bartlett Center, the city discussed the matter over the phone with Williams, who then asked that the lease be amended to allow rentals “at the discretion of the Lessee,” as indicated by a letter sent to Williams on May 31 by City Manager Bryan Carter.

The letter, written to Williams as executive director of the Bartlett Center, asks her to stop renting its kitchen to her business, Boujee Boards – with the exception of using it for the city’s Juneteenth event – while the city council prepares to consider Williams’ request “that the [lease] agreement be amended to specifically state that rentals are allowed at the discretion of the Lessee.”

However, an amended lease wouldn’t resolve other problems, such as commingled funds between the for-profit business, registered with the city under Williams’ name and using the Bartlett Center’s address, and the nonprofit. Nor is there any evidence of rental agreements between the two entities, which the city has sought from Williams as it considers her request.

Such comingling could be breaking IRS rules forbidding key nonprofit employees from enriching themselves, also called inurement, and can result in severe penalties imposed by the IRS or the state attorney general.

Missouri law also requires a person doing business under a fictitious name to register it with the secretary of state, though no such record exists for “Boujee Boards by LaTonya LLC,” which appeared in a slide accompanying Williams’ April 3 presentation, or variations of that name.

Perhaps aware of the financial entanglement, Williams “stopped by City Hall” one week after the complaint was filed in February “to explain her fundraising efforts through charcuterie board sales,” according to Bundy’s summary of interactions between the city and Williams.

This is the earliest instance The Lion could find of Williams’ claim that Boujee Boards has a charitable purpose related to the Bartlett Center.

Williams made a similar claim during her April 3 talk, where she says 100% of the money made by her company goes to the Bartlett Center as a donation.

“And economics and the figures? Well, because this is very new for me, I’m clueless. I actually officially began at the end of last year and I have not figured out any of that,” Williams said to the group of entrepreneurs.

However, nowhere on the business’ Facebook page is the Bartlett Center mentioned, or that profits are used for any charitable purposes. One comment written by Williams on a post 10 days before the complaint was filed in February even suggests business proceeds benefit Williams herself.

“Thank you for using Boujee Boards at your events! I made enough to pay for a month of meds,” reads the comment from the business, signed “LaTonya.”

Another social media post by Boujee Boards shows bottles of wine, some of them relabeled, along with boxes of sweet and savory items, which would legally require alcohol licenses the business doesn’t have. After a warning from the city, Williams “stated she would not use alcohol on her boards moving forward,” according to Bundy’s summary.

When contacted by The Lion, Williams refused to answer any questions about the licenses, whether Boujee Boards has any written agreements to use the Bartlett Center, or whether the finances of the two entities are being commingled.

Williams instead wanted to know why The Lion is “suddenly interested in the businesses of a black single mother?”

“I’d be leery of working for an employer who does things like this to protected classes,” Williams advised about the media inquiry.

Calls and emails to Bartlett Center board members listed in the organization’s latest available tax filing either weren’t answered or the board members said they were no longer on the board.

The Lion previously investigated Williams along with her fellow school board member Whitney Lanning, who were also serving together at Community Action Partnership of Greater St. Joseph (CAPSTJOE), which contracts with the school district in what may constitute a conflict of interest. Lanning was fired from CAPSTJOE in May after being charged with harassing another school board member. She pled guilty Tuesday.

As part of that investigation, The Lion also found the Bartlett Center was cited earlier this year for violations after an unannounced inspection by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Office of Childhood, including failure to conduct a sanitation and fire safety inspection and not having “an approved director on staff.”

Williams did not respond to The Lion’s request for comment at the time about the citations.

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