Banished

St. Louis Globe-Democrat reporters Al Delugach and Denny Walsh won the Pulitzer in 1969. Their reward: One-way tickets out of town. first published in the St. Louis Journalism Review, June 1, 2008

It’s been a while since the last St. Louis newspapermen garnered a Pulitzer Prize for reporting–39 years to be exact. St. Louis Globe-Democrat reporters Denny Walsh and Albert L. Delugach received the honor on May 5, 1969.

Al Delugach won the Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 1970.

Their award now hangs on the wall behind the reference desk at the Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Surrounded by unrelated bric-a-brac, journalism’s highest honor and its recipients are easily overlooked.

The St. Louis Media Halls of Fame are also located at the Mercantile, which acquired the Globe-Democrat files after the newspaper folded in 1986. But when the group’s third annual awards are presented at a gala dinner on June 7 at the Khorassan Ballroom of the Chase Park Plaza Hotel, Walsh and Delugach are not on the list — again.

Their former boss, the late G. Duncan Bauman, however, was among the first to receive the laurel three years ago. On its lower level, the Mercantile displays a permanent exhibit of his memorabilia, including his desk. As publisher of the Globe-Democrat, Bauman was most likely seated at that desk when he decided to kill Denny Walsh’s story that linked then-St. Louis Mayor A.J. Cervantes, Jr. to the St. Louis underworld.

And it’s also where he probably sat when he refused to allow Walsh and Delugach to report on stymied federal indictments of the steamfitters union, which they had investigated. They gave their story to the Wall Street Journal, a ploy that broke the indictments loose and resulted in their winning the Pulitzer Prize.

The reporters were an odd couple–Walsh looking like a boxer and Delugach like a shy botany professor. Bauman, who became their nemesis, had such an ego that he had himself named the city’s Man of The Year in what he thought would be the Globe-Democrat’s final Sunday magazine in 1984. It included 33 photos of him.

In 1995, Bauman told St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Jerry Berger that he halted publication of that story to save the integrity of the newspaper.

“I found he went to great lengths to link Mayor Cervantes to organized crime,” said Bauman. “I then made some personal phone calls to the sources that Walsh said he was using and found out Walsh was not reflecting the views of those sources accurately. So, I told Walsh we would not print that installment of the [series]…. Walsh became angry and quit.”

“He lied to Berger,” counters Walsh, who, at 72, is still a working reporter for the Sacramento Bee. “He couldn’t have talked to any of my sources. They weren’t in St. Louis, and they wouldn’t have talked to him. The sources were all federal. I believe he let his unsavory connections in the community guide his stewardship of the Globe,” Walsh adds. “I know that he told Cervantes that he had taken care of that series.”

After leaving the Globe-Democrat, Walsh joined the staff of Life Magazine, taking his spiked story and notes with him. His eight-page investigative report–“St. Louis, the Mayor, the Mob and the Lawyer”– appeared in the magazine’s May 29, 1970, issue. The account named names, dates and places and included information from FBI reports and wiretap transcripts.

The story that Bauman had prevented from running locally had gained national exposure.

Walsh alleged the mayor had mobbed-up business ties and main-rained a “steady liaison” with organized crime figures through Anthony Sansone, his campaign manager. Sansone, a successful real estate broker, was the son-in-law of Jimmy Michaels, leader of the Syrian faction of St. Louis’ underworld. Michaels, in turn, was a criminal associate of Anthony “Tony G” Giordano, don of the St. Louis mafia.

Anthony Sansone Sr.

Walsh reported Sansone arranged a 1964 campaign-strategy session between Michaels and the mayor. After Cervantes won the mayoral primary, according to Walsh, Sansone attended another strategy meeting with Michaels and Giordano.

The lawyer mentioned in Life’s headline was St. Louis criminal defense attorney Morris Shenker, part owner of the Dunes casino in Las Vegas and counsel to numerous mobsters and corrupt labor bosses, including Teamster President James R. Hoffa and Lawrence Callanan, the head of Steamfitters Local 562 in St. Louis. Despite these questionable associations, Cervantes had brazenly appointed Shenker, a political crony and Democratic power broker, to head the city’s Commission on Crime and Law Enforcement.

The mayor and his backers reacted to the Life story as if Walsh had set off a bomb inside the rotunda at City Hall. Cervantes complained that he was not only defamed, but that the reputations of the entire city and all its inhabitants were under attack. Shenker and Sansone denied wrongdoing, labeling the accusations as false. The mayor subsequently sued Walsh and the magazine for libel but failed to recover damages. In the court of public opinion, however, local broadcast and print media overwhelmingly sided with Cervantes.

 

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for instance, editorialized that “… visible evidence of everyday affairs in St. Louis does not support the correlative accusation of Life that organized crime flourishes here. On the contrary the city appears to be unusually free from the usual symptoms of such crime….”

The idea that St. Louis had been spared the deleterious influence of organized crime must have come as news to Delugach, Walsh’s former partner. They shared the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for doggedly investigating Local 562. The byline of Delugach and Walsh appeared at the top of more than 300 stories from 1965-1968. Their collaborative effort revealed a pattern of labor racketeering that resulted in multiple federal indictments having to do with a kickback scheme related to the sale of insurance to the union’s pension fund.

By the time Walsh’s Life article appeared, Delugach had also left the Globe-Democrat, joining the staff of the Post. His tenure was brief, however, lasting only a year-and-a-half. Shortly after the Post absolved the mayor and declared the city free from organized crime, Delugach quit in protest.

“If I had thought that this was just the opinion of the editorial page of the Post, I might have borne up under it,” he told SJR, which covered his resignation in its first issue.

Instead, Delugach found that the same attitude permeated the newsroom.

“I didn’t want to work for a newspaper that had this view of organized crime and that had this way of dismissing the most serious accusations against its top (city) official.” Delugach found the premise that organized crime was non-existent in St. Louis untenable.

“I think it has been voluminously proved that it is a major factor in all kinds of crime–in all cities,” he said.

When he made this statement, Delugach was 44 and had been a staff reporter at three daily newspapers in Kansas City and St. Louis for nearly two decades. After leaving the Post, he moved to the West Coast, where he continued as an investigative reporter for another 20 years, retiring from the Los Angeles Times in 1989. Reached by phone at his home in Los Angeles, the 82-year-old retiree still expressed outrage over the affair.

“It was really an insult for them to come out with that attitude in print,” says Delugach. “I took it very personally. I figured there was no future here for me. The Globe-Democrat had people that had an interest in not stirring things up, but the Post-Dispatch, they were just so aloof. Even after what we did–getting the Pulitzer Prize–they didn’t act like it had any validity at all. They didn’t demonstrate at all that they considered it important after they hired me. I don’t know why they bothered.”

Delugach recalls the Post sent him to Alaska to cover the oil boom for two months. It was a plum assignment, but far from the beat that had nabbed the Pulitzer. In retrospect, it almost seems like the Post used its deep pockets to send him into exile.

By contrast, Delugach and Walsh had the full support of Richard Amberg, the previous publisher of the Globe-Democrat who originally teamed them up. But after Ainberg died and Bauman took over in 1967, Walsh noticed a change in course.

“Al and I were having a lot of difficulty with Bauman,” says Walsh. “He began to squeeze us on what we were doing, in respect to the steamfitters.”

The impasse reached a critical stage after Walsh learned through his sources in Washington that top Department of Justice officials had quashed the federal criminal prosecution of those involved in the $1 million steamfitters’ kickback conspiracy case.

“We wrote that story and handed it in,” says Walsh. “He (Bauman) killed it.”

Walsh says he then leaked the piece to Wall Street Journal Reporter Nicholas Gage. After the Journal ran the story, Delugach and Walsh were free to report on it in the Globe-Democrat. More important, the news coverage forced the Justice Department to reverse its decision and go forward with the prosecution.

“We wouldn’t have won the Pulitzer Prize had the indictment not been returned,” Walsh says.

The defendants included the president of the First United Life Insurance Co. of Gary, Ind., and two officials of Local 562. Court documents named Shenker and Callanan as beneficiaries of the scheme, but they weren’t charged. John “Doc” Lawler, another top steamfitter official, also allegedly benefited from the kickbacks.

John O’Connell Hough, Lawler’s personal attorney and un-indicted co-conspirator, agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors, but never got the chance to testify. The Clayton-based lawyer disappeared in the Miami area on Aug. 12, 1967. Two months later, fishermen discovered his body in a secluded pine grove near the Inter-Coastal Waterway several miles north of Bal Harbour, Fla. Hough had been beaten and shot to death with .38-caliber handgun. The homicide remains unsolved.

After Hough’s murder, two prosecution witnesses refused to testify, and the defendants were acquitted.

In the intervening decades, the Post’s editorial position has been accepted as unequivocal. Nowadays it is taken for granted that organized crime no longer exists in St. Louis.

Walsh refuses to speculate on whether the mob is dead or alive here.

“I’ve been gone for 40 years. I don’t know what’s going on there. I don’t know what the Post is doing or not doing.”

The veteran reporter is sure of this much: “I would not want to be a member of any organization, or any group or any entity that counts Duncan Bauman as a member. I think he’s a stain on St. Louis journalism.”

 

 

Tony Messenger’s BFF

Pulitzer-Prize Winner Tony Messenger blurred the lines between the editorial page and the newsroom in 2015 and lived. Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich wasn’t so lucky.

On page 13A of the Feb. 27, 2015 edition, Tony Messenger, then the editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, began his tribute to the late Tom Schweich by referring to him as his BFF,  an acronym that stands for “best friends forever.” In the next sentence and several that followed, Messenger made clear that he was not really Schweich’s best friend, and that the label was used by his fellow editorial writers to sarcastically allude to his relationship with the state auditor and Republican gubernatorial candidate. As Messenger explained it, the BFF reference was an inside joke.  

Messenger penned his tribute, which began with that disparagement, less than 24 hours after Schweich had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a hand gun. Messenger then went on to explain the reason why Schweich was jokingly referred to as his BFF. It was because Schweich exhibited a naivete unusual in a politician. He truly considered Messenger to be his confidante. Schweich spoke to Messenger openly about his political and personal troubles. Messenger listened. But it’s clear from Messenger’s account that he did not share the Schweich’s illusion of friendship. Schweich was more a source than a friend to Messenger. He cultivated the relationship to gain inside information from Schweich beginning in 2010 when he was a reporter for another newspaper in Jefferson City, the Missouri state capital.

Immediately prior to his suicide, Schweich had confided in Messenger, telling him about the problems he was encountering related to his Republican gubernatorial bid.  Rumors were allegedly being circulated against him by John Hancock, the then-chairman of the state Republican Party. The allegations revolved around Schweich’s religious background. According to Messenger’s account, Schweich believed Hancock was falsely telling Republicans that Schweich was Jewish in an effort to undercut his gubernatorial candidacy.

In his homage, Messenger wrote that after Schweich committed suicide Messenger felt compelled to do what he had never done before as a reporter: He revealed the substance of off-the-record conversations with a source. The problem with Messenger’s confession is that he was not a reporter any longer when this breech of ethics occurred. He was the editorial page editor. Editorial writers are not reporters. They adhere to a different set of rules than those followed in the newsroom. They must remain detached and above the fray, otherwise they risk destroying their credibility and independence by miring themselves in conflicts of interests and charges of bias and deceit. In short, an editorial writer should never have been talking off-the-record to a public official, especially one involved in a heated election race.

In this case, the conflict is that Messenger was milking a confidential source for inside political information when he was not a reporter. Moreover, he knew that Schweich was having serious emotional and mental problems, but he continued the relationship despite all of this, feigning friendship. He was in charge of setting the editorial position of the newspaper and shaping public opinion, while continuing to maintain an off-the-record source — as if he were still a reporter. He was not a reporter, however. Nonetheless, Messenger still referred to himself in the aftermath of the Schweich suicide as a “reporter.”

The other problem with Messenger’s confused role in this tragedy is that he apparently communicated some facet of confidential information he had received off-the-record from Schweich to the newsroom staff, from which he was supposed to be separated as an opinion writer. A reporter was subsequently sent to interview Schweich, but Schweich killed himself before the reporter arrived.

Messenger had broken the firewall between the editorial page and the newsroom.

Was  Messenger sacked, suspended or even mildly reprimanded for these violations of journalistic standards? No, he was rewarded and given a column. Last year, he  won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary and there was much celebrating in the newsroom to which he had returned. Schweich’s death wasn’t on anybody’s mind during the celebration. The circumstances of Schweich’s death would have been largely forgotten had not Tony Messenger himself duly chronicled his involvement to readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

At 9:41 a.m., Feb. 26, 2015, seven-minutes before police were called to Schweich’s house after he shot himself, Tony Messenger acknowledged receiving a call on his cell phone from a distraught Tom Schweich, but Messenger ignored the call. He didn’t pick it up. Schweich left him a voice mail message. Referring to that final message from his “BFF,” Messenger ended his tribute to Schweich the day after the state auditor’s suicide with this comment: “I think I’ll keep it.”

Did he?

Keeper of the Farm

Singer-songwriter Wil Maring finds her place in rural Illnois

by C.D. Stelzer
first published in Illinois Times, Aug. 8, 2007

It’s a languid August evening in Cobden, a former stop on the old Illinois Central line about 10 miles south of Carbondale. At one time, the surrounding orchard country supplied cities to the north, including Springfield, with fresh produce by way of the railroad. Freight trains, belonging to Canadian National, still chug through the middle of town on their way to Chicago and New Orleans.

Over the weekend, Cobden celebrated its sesquicentennial in conjunction with its annual Peach Festival. A cold snap this spring killed much of the crop, but the town imported some fruit and crowned this year’s peach queen nonetheless.

There is less fanfare on the dusky eve of the celebration, as Wil Maring and Robert Bowlin schlep their equipment across Front Street to the Yellowmoon Café. After uncrating their instruments and setting up the sound system and microphones, they perform a sound check. By the time the show commences, about a dozen people have congregated.

Southern Illinois singer-songwriter Wil Maring.

Over the next couple hours, the duet performs a hybrid of bluegrass, country, and folk music. Maring accompanies herself on guitar and bass fiddle; Bowlin backs her up on lead guitar and violin. Maring takes one request after another for her original songs. Most of the folks seem as familiar with her compositions as they are with nearby Route 51, the road to Carbondale. They know the titles, melodies, and lyrics. Midway through the set, Bowlin plays a few solo instrumentals, including a medley of Stephen Foster songs and a jazz number by the late Django Reinhardt, the famed Gypsy guitarist. Guest performers join them in a finale. Each song receives resounding applause from the small audience.

At the end of the night, Maring and her sideman both receive $24 in tips, or, as she calculates, two sacks of groceries each. It could easily be said that these musicians are paying their dues, except for the fact that they are already journeymen in their craft, exceptional artists with decades of professional experience. Maring has performed on the Grand Ole Opry, played in Europe and Japan, and won accolades for her songwriting skills. She has produced three solo recordings of original material in the past decade. Bowlin has been a studio musician in Nashville, won national guitar-playing awards and worked as a fiddler in the late Bill Monroe’s bluegrass band. He has appeared onstage with everybody from B.B. King to Ricky Skaggs.

This Thursday, Aug. 9 (2007), they’ll be in Springfield, taping two half-hour shows to be aired later on PBS affiliate WSEC (Channel 14). On Friday night, they’re scheduled to play at the Underground City Tavern, in the Hilton Springfield. On Saturday, they’ll be playing in the Illinois State Old-Time Fiddle Contest, at the state fairgrounds. And on Sunday, they’ll be in Chicago, taking part in the Great Performers of Illinois Festival.

So it would be reasonable to ask why these superlative musicians prefer to hang out in Cobden, at the Yellowmoon. The answer has something to do with the place Maring calls home. “I’m from here,” she says. “I love the area. I know every inch of it.”

Maring lives on the edge of town in a 19th-century farmhouse with an old ash tree in the front yard. Emma, her black-and-white border collie, barks at visitors. Buddy, her roan quarter horse, limps in the corral out back. He cut a hoof recently and is mending slowly. The 1992 Oldsmobile with the Tennessee plates belongs to Bowlin, a recent exile from Music City, who barely made it from Paducah late this afternoon.

Inside the house, the parlor is filled with musical instruments: A bass fiddle leans against one wall. A gourd-back mandolin sits on a shelf. There is a piano, covered by a quilt. On top of the quilt rest a vintage Martin flattop guitar, a fiddle, and a well-used five-string banjo. Maring sits at the kitchen table, explaining her career decisions. She wears a sleeveless print blouse, green khaki shorts, and sandals. A wisp of her long brown hair is beginning to turn gray.

“I have gone to Nashville many times over the last two or three years, thinking that it might be good to meet people there, meet people in the industry, other writers,” Maring says. “They say that you’ll never make it if you don’t live there and co-write with famous people and work your way up the ladder, but I went there enough times to know that it’s not a place where I would want to live.”

Driving around the country-music capital, she realized that nothing she encountered evoked any recollection of the past. Nashville holds no memories for her, and memories are a key inspiration for her songwriting. Every little piece of Murphysboro, Carbondale, Makanda, and Cobden harbors meaning. “My history is here,” she says. “I drive down a country road and I see a spot that holds a memory, [a] creek I used to swim when I was in eighth grade.”

Eighth grade is also when a close friend started calling her Wil. The nickname stuck. Nowadays, few people other than her parents refer to her as Lillian. After she started playing guitar, as a youngster, she realized that it was easier to create her own songs then it was to learn other music. She honed her skills in the summertime, while tending the family’s vegetable stand along Route 51.

“There were six kids, and we were all one year apart,” Maring says. Each sibling worked a shift. When her turn came, Maring would take her father’s cheap guitar out to the stand with her to occupy time. In her spare time she listened to John Denver and James Taylor albums and tried to figure out the chord progressions. But Maring’s musical career might have wilted at the roadside if it hadn’t been for the influence of friends and family.

Both of her parents, Ester and Joel Maring, were anthropologists at Southern Illinois University. Her father befriended another faculty member, Dale Whiteside. The two academics shared a special interest in ethnomusicology. Whiteside taught a class in American folk music. The Marings would often visit the Whitesides’ rustic homestead near Jonesboro, which was called Rivendell after the mythical place created by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings. “It was always fun to go there as a kid,” Maring says, “because it was like camping.”

In 1971 the Whitesides began hosting a biannual private music festival at Rivendell, inviting university students to the farm. The gathering ended up attracting folk musicians from far and wide, with attendees camping in the nearby Shawnee National Forest. Maring was inspired as she watched and listened to other children playing their instruments, including her friend Ann, one of the Whiteside kids, who managed to pluck the bass fiddle by standing on a box.
“That’s where I think I got the bug to try and play,” Maring says. “I thought, ‘Man, if she can do it, I can do it.’”

Later, during her college years, Maring developed her rhythm-guitar playing by backing up her then-boyfriend at fiddle contests, which culminated each year in Springfield with a competition at the Illinois State Fair. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she followed her parents into anthropology, earning a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from SIU. From 1984 to 1986, she lived in Japan, collecting folksongs for her thesis. While there, she taught English and played in two bluegrass bands.

During a 1988 European vacation Maring met Mark Stoffel, a German-born mandolinist. They returned together to Carbondale. Stoffel enrolled at SIU, and the couple formed Shady Mix, a bluegrass band, in 1989. In 1992 they married and moved back to Germany, re-forming the group with Munich musicians. For the next decade Shady Mix toured Germany, Italy, France, and the Czech Republic.

Most of the touring involved traveling with a Wild West show in Germany called the Red Grizzly Saloon. The mock Western town was set up inside convention centers as part of trade fairs and home-and-garden shows. Maring describes the entertainment as a combination of Buffalo Bill and vaudeville.

“There were stuntmen. There were bank robberies four times a day,” she says. “We worked together in close conjunction with the actors. It’s so weird, now that I’m in a different phase of my life. I think, ‘Did I really do that?’ ”

Maring and Stoffel returned to southern Illinois in 2001 and bought a farmhouse outside Murphysboro. That place was the inspiration for one of her songs, “Keeper of the Farm,” which was a finalist this year in the prestigious songwriting contest associated with the annual Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festival.

Red and golden on a farmhouse wall, The sun shone in and showed a place that I’ve known all along. A place that needed me, A place that I’d call home,
A place I knew where I belonged.

“I’ve always had an affinity for old houses and old farms,” Maring says. “When I was the tiniest kid, I would get excited if I saw an old farm. I don’t know why.” But this particular farmhouse charmed her more than usual. “When I walked in, it was like one of those eerie déjà vu things. I felt like I had already been there to the point where I knew where all the rooms were.”

They came a hundred years ago to rest beneath this tree. They built a home just like the home they left across the sea. Three generations and now it’s come to me. I am the keeper of the farm.

Memory, a sense of place, and history are evident in all of Maring’s lyrics, as well as a strong visual element. If she appears to have the eye of a painter, it is because she is one. She studied art as an undergraduate and worked at the University Museum at SIU. Her watercolors and other graphic designs are displayed on the covers of her albums, as well as on others’. “Landscapes are things that I build into the songs,” she says.

Weathered wood against a bright blue sky, The whites just aren’t as white now as they were in Grandpa’s time. But I have the power and I hope I still have the time. I am the keeper of the farm.

Her songs are personal and introspective, but they also draw from the lives of others, merging their stories and hers with pictures of the land. The result is an authenticity that would be impossible for the music industry in Nashville to replicate. The music itself crisscrosses the boundaries of bluegrass, country, and folk to form a montage of American roots music.

The Calling, Maring’s latest CD, coincides with Maring’s recent divorce, and many of the songs on the album reflect the changes in the musician’s life and career. While living in Europe Maring wrote songs, but cultural and language differences there made it difficult for her to measure their quality. That changed in 1998, when she won a songwriting contest in North Carolina for her song “Bottomlands,” which she performed on the Grand Ole Opry in 2004.

In the intervening years, Maring says, she has received plenty of positive feedback from Nashville professionals, but her music has gained more recognition and exposure lately on the Internet.

Maring’s MySpace page (myspace.com/wilmaring) has received more than 39,000 hits in less than a year. Four songs posted at the site have been listened to more than 42,000 times. More than 19,000 “friends” have linked to her site. Last Wednesday, 68 people had listened to her music by 8 a.m. — either the listeners rose awfully early, or Maring now has an international following. The page averages between 300 and 400 hits per day.

These numbers astound Maring. She attributes much of her online popularity to a 21-year-old fan, Jared Ingersol, of St. Charles, Mo., who has volunteered his time to manage the Web site. The online popularity seems to indicate that her homegrown music has the capacity for mass appeal. The buzz generated by MySpace hasn’t translated into any significant increase in CD sales, but the site has helped her find some new gigs, and her energetic webmaster is hoping that Maring’s presence on My Space and YouTube will help promote a California tour in November.

Although her home in Southern Illinois is her muse, home life is not always conducive to songwriting. “I actually look forward to going on the road,” Maring says. “You don’t have the house to take care of and all the other things that distract you. You’re in a hotel room with your guitar.”

Maring performed regularly in the Springfield area in recent years, in the now-defunct Cabin Concerts series. Her longtime friend Ann Bova, formerly Whiteside, started the series, along with then-partner Joe Bohlen, in 2004 to promote acoustic music in central Illinois. The concerts were held at Bohlen’s spacious log cabin north of Pleasant Plains, and Maring became a favorite of the concertgoers. To Bova, the secret to Maring’s innate talent is the way she conveys real life in a sincere way: “The sweetness of her voice has a magical way of delivering a message straight to your heartstrings.”

Through the concert series Maring met U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who, she says, has become one of her biggest fans. A few months ago Maring attended a dinner party in Springfield at which she had a tête-à-tête with the senator about the influence of cyberspace on their careers. “We sat around in the kitchen for a long time, talking about Internet promotion,” Maring says. “He was brainstorming, trying figure out a way that I could get my music out there, because he feels like it needs to be heard. He had just started a MySpace for his own political stuff, and I was telling him about [its] potential if you know how to manage it.”

When asked about her goals, Maring laughs. “My goal is to be able to pay my bills and fix up this house,” she says. Then she considers the question more seriously. She talks about setting her sights higher and winning a Grammy. But in the end she reiterates her first priority: “This house is one of the oldest houses around. This part is a log cabin. It would be a shame to bulldoze it just because somebody didn’t want to spend money to keep it. . . . So that’s my goal.

“I’m the keeper of the farm.”

Before You Get Your Checkbook Out …

Hollywood actors Meryl Streep and Patrick Stewart are using Facebook to ask the public to contribute to a good cause this holiday season. There’s one hitch: the non-profit corporation  they have endorsed is a front for a government-financed agency once headed by William Casey, President Reagan’s CIA director. Moreover, their favorite yuletide charity nowadays lists  Trump’s White House as its home address.  

In her Facebook appeal on behalf of the International Rescue Committee,  actress Meryl Streep extols the virtues of the refugee relief organization, imploring millions of her starstruck fans to donate to the non-profit corporation.

“I am a proud supporter of this splendid, hard-working, efficient, beautiful organization, and I hope you will join me,” Streep says in her Facebook video. What the actress doesn’t include in her sales pitch is that the IRC is already the beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer dollars. Streep’s plea for money also fails to mention that the IRC’s largest contribution — more than $80 million —  came from 1300 Pennsylvania Ave in Washington, D.C., according to the charity’s latest available Internal Revenue Service tax return.

The White House address is attached to the generous gift given to the IRC by the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, an arm of the United States Agency for International Development, an executive

Meryl Streep’s Facebook post  lauds the IRC, a front once headed by CIA spook William Casey.

branch agency that administers U.S. foreign aid.

Support offered by Streep and fellow movie star Patrick Steward in their Facebook pitches on behalf of the IRC both praise the organization’s efforts to relieve the suffering of millions of displaced families that are the victims of wars, many of which are bankrolled by American military assistance around the world through allocations made in the annual Pentagon budget.

There is no doubt a need for aid exists in the war ravaged regions of the world, but the Hollywood icons’ Facebook appeal presents the organization’s mission as purely altruistic, and omits mentioning the IRC’s ties to the federal government, thereby misrepresenting the IRC’s objectives and shrouding its checkered history.

In addition to the $80 million from the OFDA,  USAID contributed  more than $60 million directly, according to the IRC’s tax filings in 2018.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services kicked in approximately another $38 million. Together with other U.S. government agency donations and contributions from the European Union and the governments of Germany and Sweden, the IRC ledger shows contributions of more than $700 million in 2018. Moreover, the tax return indicates that, in the preceding five-year period, the organization raked in more than $3 billion.

 

IRC’s 2018 IRS record shows an $80 million donation from 1300 Pennsylvania Ave.

If Streep and Stewart’s support for a program with ties to the Trump administration seems weird, it’s really only the tip of the iceberg. Trump and his minions did not invent this well-endowed, quasi-public, foreign policy tool.  Instead, the origins of the IRC and its role in carrying out the U.S. government’s global agenda began in the 1930s before Trump and the current crop of Republican know-nothings were even born. Initially, the IRC adhered to its objectives of providing aid to refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany. But by the advent of the Cold War, the purpose of the organization morphed into a concerted covert operation aimed at promoting U.S. hegemony in post-war Europe.

As mentioned by the celebrities in their social-media spam, Albert Einstein was a supporter of the early incarnation of the IRC, but the two Hollywood actors’ Facebook ads omit a more telling detail related to the organization’s origins:  The American wing of the IRC was founded by Jay Lovestone, an American communist, who later became a CIA double agent in Europe. Lovestone’s work for the agency focused on subverting leftist labor movements through his leadership of the American Institute for Free Labor Development. Similar to the International Rescue Committee, AIFLD received its funding through USAID, which was formed by Kennedy administration in 1961. Lovestone later headed to the AFL-CIO’s International Affairs Department through which he continued to do the bidding of the CIA.

William Casey and Leo Cherne were among the fellow travelers who followed in Lovestone’s foot steps, they would each share a role in steering the IRC during the Cold War.

Wall Street lawyer, OSS operative, CIA director and Iran-Contra ringleader William J. Casey.

Of the pair, Casey, a Wall Street insider, is more well known because he eventually became CIA director in 1981 under President Ronald Reagan. Casey got his start as a spook during the World War II as a member of the Office of Strategic Services, which was the predecessor of the CIA. In 1962, Casey founded the National Strategy Information Center, another Cold War CIA front.  Then in 1970,  he took over the helm of the IRC before embarking on his career in public service as an Under Secretary of State and Chairman of the Security and Exchange Commission in the Nixon administration.  A decade later, Casey managed Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign, during which time he allegedly  masterminded of the 1980 theft of President Jimmy Carter’s briefing papers, giving the aging Hollywood actor the edge in that’s fall’s televised debate. Casey was also instrumental in pulling off another dirty trick during the campaign: He set up back channel negotiations with Iranian emissaries to withhold the release of the Americans hostages being held in Iran until after the November election, thus insuring Reagan’s victory. The rogue operation was dubbed the October Surprise.

During his tenure as Reagan’s CIA director, Casey planned and carried out the Iran-Contra Affair, using illicit arms sales to Iran to finance Reagan’s secret war against the Nicaraguan Sandinista government. Under Casey’s leadership, the CIA engaged in cocaine trafficking with Colombian cartels and  bankrolled Central American military death squads in cooperation with the Argentine government’s fascist military dictatorship. Many of the leaders of the death squads were trained at the School of the Americas, which was funded by Office of Public Safety, an arm of USAID.  All of these off-the-book activities were part of the Reagan bund’s fanatical right-wing crusade against the perceived communist threat in Central America.  Known as The Enterprise, the secret operation was operated out of the White House by Col. Oliver North, the recently deposed president of the National Rifle Association. Casey’s espionage career began in World War II with Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA and brainchild of fellow Wall Street lawyer William “Wild Bill” Donovan, Casey’s mentor.

Cold War Lovers: Ronald Reagan and Leo Cherne.

Cherne’s career path is no less intriguing. Besides his longtime role as leader of the IRC, he also headed the murky Research Institute of America and Freedom House, a publishing company that specialized in anti-communist propaganda. Similar to IRC, Freedom House claims to be an independent non-government organization, but it receives a large part of its funding through the National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S. government agency created by the Reagan administration to meddle in the internal affairs and elections of sovereign countries. Cherne was a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 1973 to 1991.

 

Former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, the IRC’s current CEO, receives more than $900,000 in annual compensation. Prior to heading the IRC, Milibank was a senior global advisor at Oxford Analytica, an English think tank founded by American expatriate David Young, a protege of Henry Kissinger. Young fled the U.S. following revelations of his involvement in the Watergate scandal during the Nixon administration in the early 1970s. As an assistant National Security Council advisor in Nixon’s White House, Young ran the so-called Plumber’s Unit, which hired former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt and a crew of anti-Castro Cubans to burglarize the Democratic National Party headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. in June 1972.

The IRC’s current board of directors includes: former Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a powerful Washington, D.C. lobbyist with current or past ties to think tanks such as the Aspen Institute and the Center for American Progress; former Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, the banker who engineered the Wall Street bail out for President Barrack Obama;  retired Gen. Colin Powell, President George W. Bush’s first Secretary of State, who lied to the United Nations about Iraq’s possession of alleged weapons of mass destruction; and Condoleezza Rice, who served as Bush’s national security advisor as succeeded Powell in heading the State Department.

Perhaps Streep and Stewart are naive about the IRC’s dark origins and its current murky agenda.  But government propaganda efforts during the Obama administration show that Hollywood has been wooed by the federal government and may already be actively engaged in supporting U.S. foreign policy. In June 2015, for instance, the Obama State Department convened a summit meeting  at Sunnylands, the Southern California estate of the late media mogul Walter Annenberg. Those on hand for the meeting included representatives of the film and social media industries, including HBO and Snapchat. The discussions focused on measures between government and private industry to forge a united front to bolster the U.S. government’s image at home and abroad through a collaborative effort aimed at attacking anti-American sentiments online. The stated targets at that time were non-state actors, specifically ISIS, the Middle Eastern terrorist organization. But since then the CIA has publicly demonized Russia for its efforts to influence the political opinions of the American electorate.

In January 2017, the CIA declassified a 2012  internal agency report. The majority of the information in the report is unrelated to the continuing furor over whether Donald Trump  benefited from the alleged Russian intrusion in the 2016 presidential election. Instead, the CIA intelligence assessment details how RT America, the Russian news service, is allegedly being used by the Kremlin as a propaganda tool to cast the U.S.  government in a bad light. This begs whether the CIA mounted a counter-espionage campaign,  including online fund raising for the IRC, to offset the perceived damage being inflicted by the negative image of the Russian news service  broadcasts not only in America but to a global audience via the Internet.

 

 

 

Once Upon a Time in New Orleans

Cavorting with the corpse of Ernie K-Doe leads to a dark corner of the Big Easy’s past. 

Ernie K-Doe’s funeral, New Orleans, June 2001

It was June 2001 and we were seeking shelter from the sun, having just finished dancing for several hours in a New Orleans funeral procession. The second line had followed the brass bands from downtown out to St. Louis Cemetery No. 2. The parade honored the late Ernie K-Doe, self-described “Emperor of the Universe.” K-Doe a local rhythm and blues recording artist, had one chart buster back in 1962 — Mother-in-Law.

Hoofing back in the direction of our hotel, we stopped at the first available watering hole, Cosimo’s, a little bar at 1201 Burgundy St., on the edge of the French Quarter. Not your typical raucous Bourbon Street dive, Cosimo’s was cool and dark and quiet inside. The bartender looked like she may have been serving drinks at the place since it opened. Cosimo’s was the kind of place where native New Orleans residents came to escape the hordes of tourists. The regulars all seemed to know each other.

Cosimo’s bar, 1201 Burgundy St., New Orleans.

A new digitized jukebox had recently been installed and the bartender was having difficulty figuring out how it worked. During some small talk, she let it slip out that owner of the place also owned the jukebox company. When she walked to the other end of the bar, I leaned over and whispered to Alison, “This place looks like it’s mobbed up.” Since then, the term “mobbed up” has become an inside joke with us because I seem to see vestiges of organized crime around every corner. Perhaps this annoying little quirk of mine fits more snugly in a city like New Orleans, a city that never has tried to hide behind a veneer of respectability as much as St. Louis. The corruption in the Crescent City has always been closer to the surface, less hidden.

After we got back home, I received a review copy of Rearview Mirror: Looking Back at the FBI, the CIA and Other Tails by former FBI agent William Turner. After he split from the bureau in the 1960s, Turner became an editor at Ramparts magazine. Later, he helped New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison investigate the Kennedy assassination. Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin, had spent time in New Orleans in the year preceding the assassination, hanging out with a group of right-wing extremists, including Clay Shaw, David Ferrie and Guy Bannister, an ex-FBI agent from Chicago. Bannister ran a private detective agency in New Orleans, which was a front for Anti-Castro guerrilla operations.

David Ferrie, left, with Lee Harvey Oswald at a Civil Air Patrol outing in 1955.

In 1968, when Garrison started trying to unravel these connections, he had a sit-down with Dean Andrews, a friend and fellow attorney. Garrison believed that Shaw was involved in the plot to kill Kennedy because he had briefly hired Andrews to defend Oswald almost immediately after the alleged assassin had been arrested. Here’s an excerpt from Turner’s book:

“… Within days of the assassination, attorney Dean A. Andrews had tipped the FBI about a link between Oswald and Shaw, who was using the pseudonym Clay Bertrand. … Andrews, a Falstaffian figure with a flair for hip language, later told the Warren Commission that he had ran a kind of turnstile law practice in which he secured the release of `gay swishers’ arrested by the police in violation of sumptuary laws. … Continuing, Andrews mentioned that on the day after the assassination he was recovering from an illness in the Hotel Dieu Hospital when `the phone rang and a voice I recognized as Clay Bertrand asked me if I would go to Dallas’ to defend Oswald.’ …

“Although the (Warren) Commission discounted Andrews statement, Garrison didn’t. He knew Andrews, having gone to Tulane law school with him. … So one of the first things that (Garrison) did when he reopened his JFK file in late 1967 was to send his investigators into the French Quarter to seek out the elusive Bertrand. Back came the word: Clay Bertrand was the name Clay Shaw used in the Quarter, and one of his haunts was Cosimo’s bar, which Andrews had depicted … as a ‘freaky little place where he once spotted Bertrand.'”

Of course, I didn’t know this when I was sipping a near beer at Cosimo’s in the summer of 2001. The 20th Century was still clear in my own rearview mirror and 9/11 was not anywhere on my horizon. The day that we danced at Ernie K-Doe’s funeral I was supposed to attend a luncheon at the Association of Alternative Newspapers’ convention at a big hotel on Canal Street. The keynote speaker was Oliver Stone, director o f the movie JFK. (In the screen version, Stone cast comedian John Candy as Dean Andrews.) My plan was to collar Stone, after his speech, and ask him if he needed a researcher on another one of his projects, a film about the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which still remains dormant. Instead, I opted to dance at a New Orleans musician’s funeral.

The jukebox selection at Cosimo’s even nowadays tends more towards Frank Sinatra. Still I image that K-Doe’s one hit, Mother-in-Law, might have been playing on a sultry New Orleans’ night more than 40 years ago, when Clay Shaw and David Ferrie partied and plotted down on Burgundy Street.

Ernie K-Doe and Oliver Stone unwittingly conspired to bring me to that bar stool at Cosimo’s on a hot summer’s day. You could call it a random convergence or something more fatalistic. However you choose to spin it, it’s funny how you can be standing in the wake of history and not even know it until long after you’re immersed by a wave of time.

Come to think of it, I guess that’s what history is.

Under the Radar

East Side player Gary Fears and his diverse business associates are betting that his military aviation business finally takes off. Whether it will fly is still up in the air.

By C.D. Stelzer

First published at focusmidwest.com in May 2010.

 

“It’s interesting that the guys who came here to help move the plane actually were Russian nationals,” says Cheryl Hill, a prosecutor in Marquette, Michigan.

Hill is referring to a gargantuan Soviet military aircraft worth millions of dollars that has been stranded for the better part of the last year at a former U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command base in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Gary Fears’ Ilyushin IL-78.

The spring thaw has melted the snow that accumulated around the aircraft over the winter, but mysteries surrounding its presence at Sawyer International Airport remain.

A fuel-leaking Cold War relic, the 94-ton behemoth has been the subject of both curiosity and consternation in Marquette since it touched down in July. Almost immediately, five members of the Ilyushin IL-78’s nine-man Ukrainian crew were deported for visa violations.

Hill, the local official charged with interim custody of the plane, recalls that one of the foreign-born aviators dispatched by the U.S. Customs Service to move the plane off the runway told her that he had flown the same aircraft during the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. She mentions the coincidence as an aside, her prosecutorial inquisitiveness piqued more by the plane’s flight plan from last summer.

“I think that the more interesting question is, what were they going to do with it in Pakistan?” Hill says. “Were they running guns? Were they running drugs? Were they running people? You could drive tanks in there.”

The prosecutor’s suspicions raise a litany of other issues regarding accountability and transparency in the increasingly privatized war on terror, including the extent of U.S. military intelligence involvement, the veil of secrecy enveloping de facto covert operations, the purposes of such clandestine actions and who ultimately is profiting from the expansion of the wars now being waged in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The covert nature of the aircraft’s mission and those involved in carrying it out would never have come to light if not for a dispute over a maintenance bill.

Victor Miller, owner of Air 1 Flight Services of Sherman, Texas, filed suit against Air Support Systems LLC in June 2009, alleging that the company owed more than $70,000 in maintenance fees accrued during the two-anda-half years the plane was mothballed at the North Texas Regional Airport. After the Ukrainian crew took off with the plane the next month, it was grounded in Michigan, as a result of a restraining order, before it could leave U.S. airspace.

The registered owner of the plane is Gary R. Fears, a former Downstate Illinois powerbroker who now resides in South Florida. Fears dismisses the imbroglio over the plane as much ado about nothing.

“The whole thing was a huge misunderstanding,” says the 63-year-old Fears, who maintains his corporate address at his lawyer’s office in St. Louis County, Missouri.

Gary Fears

The leaseholder of the plane is North American Tactical Aviation Inc. (NATA), a corporation with the same Wilmington, Delaware, address as Air Support Systems LLC, a Fears-owned company with one asset: the grounded plane. That the corporations share the same Delaware incorporation address could easily be attributed to coincidence, but bankruptcy records filed on behalf of Air Support Systems in St. Louis last fall provide more details as to who invested money in the aircraft or lent money for its purchase.

The outstanding creditors listed in the filing include a private mercenary group, a shadowy front company in Gibraltar and an Illinois gambling executive with alleged ties to the Chicago mob. On October 23, a judge in Marquette County, Michigan, ruled in Miller’s favor and awarded him the plane as payment for the unpaid debt. To prevent the tanker from being taken, Fears countered by filing for Chapter 11 protection for Air Support Systems on October 28 in federal bankruptcy court in St. Louis.

“That stayed all of the action,” says Hill, the Marquette County prosecutor. On Dec. 17, Fears reversed his legal strategy and had his St. Louis bankruptcy attorney dismiss the case he had filed less than two months earlier. In March, the Michigan court’s ruling was upheld.

The decision is the latest twist in the bizarre legal dispute. The latest Michigan court ruling follows a decision by the Department of Homeland Security to release the plane. Miller could not be reached for comment, but Fears maintains that he is still the legitimate owner.

Buying a foreign military aircraft is not like other business transactions. Before Fears could get his hands on the IL-78, the federal government had to allow its importation. North American Tactical Aviation, the shadowy corporation that leased the plane from Fears after he purchased it, initially obtained permission to bring the plane to the United States. It is also the company involved in the failed effort to fly the plane to Pakistan last summer.

“I’m told that NATA [North American Tactical Aviation] had a contract to take the plane to Pakistan in support of the allied efforts there,” Fears says. He emphasizes that the mission had been officially sanctioned. “We bought the plane from the Ukrainian government. The Air Force wrote a letter in support of the importation of it, saying they thought the plane had potential use in support of U.S. training requirements. The refueling system on that airplane is common to many, many other countries.

“I view it as a logical and good thing to support the [war] effort,” says Fears. “It’s not to say that I agree politically with all efforts. I thought the Iraq war had a noble purpose and was grossly mishandled by the Bush administration, billions of dollars and thousands of American lives wasted. It was as bad as Vietnam in terms of misuse of assets. I view Afghanistan as far more complicated a question than Iraq, and I don’t know what the right answers are there. I’m glad I’m not the guy making the decisions.”

Strange bedfellows

Nevertheless, while the wars rage on, Fears views the purchase of the Ukrainian military aircraft as a pragmatic business choice and sound investment. Though he says that the plane was a one-time deal and that he is not a broker of military hardware, records related to his abortive bankruptcy filing on behalf of Air Support Systems show that his acquisition of the plane was not carried out alone. Fears received venture capital from an international security firm operated by former high-ranking military officials. The records show that Trident Response Group of Dallas sank more than $2.5 million into Air Support Systems for the purchase of “future aircraft” on December 5, 2005. The Federal Aviation Administration issued Air Support Systems a certificate of registration for the IL-78 nine months later.

Clint Bruce

Former Navy SEAL Clint Bruce, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and businessman C. Dewey Elliott III founded TRG. Bruce is lauded on the Trident website as a past commander of SEAL platoons “engaged in direct support of the Global War on Terror.” Elliott, a fellow Annapolis alum, is listed as having been a “senior consultant with Washington and Boston-based firms where he supported intelligence, systems acquisitions and financial management for DoD [Department of Defense], Fortune 500 and multi-national clients.” The website shows Lt. Col. John B. Skinner III, an active Marine Corps Reserve officer, as TRG’s vice president of operations. The board of directors includes retired Marine Corps Gen. Jack Davis, a former federal agent and state law enforcement officer; and John W. Wroten, a Naval Academy grad, former Marine captain and retired vice president of Electronic Data Systems.

The involvement of former Navy personnel in backing the purchase of a military aircraft seems normal enough, but the other creditors come from widely divergent backgrounds.

Russell DeLeon

For instance, Headlands Ltd., a front company in Gibraltar, has more than $1.1 million tied up in the IL-78, according to the bankruptcy filing, By no small coincidence, Headlands’ address is in the same location as a mail drop for Russell De Leon. He is the husband of Ruth Parasol, the founder of PartyGaming, an online gambling company that has employed Fears’ lobbying services. Together De Leon and Parasol own 40 percent of PartyGaming. They reside in Gibraltar.

Parasol, who grew up in affluent Marin County, Calif., founded PartyGaming with profits from her family’s pornography business. Her father, Richard Parasol, a Holocaust survivor and former Israeli Army officer, opened a string of massage parlors in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district in the early 1970s. After graduating from law school, Ruth Parasol joined the family business, which by then was operating phone sex chat lines. The father and daughter then diversified, investing in Internet Entertainment Group Ltd., an online pornography company. In 1997 Ruth Parasol shifted her interests exclusively to online gambling, which proved even more profitable than the sex trade.

Robert Kjellander

Robert Kjellander

But after President George W. Bush signed a law banning online gambling in 2006, Internet gaming profits took a nosedive. In response, PartyGaming hired Avatar Enterprises Inc., Fears’ lobbying firm. Lobbying records show that Avatar used influential Republican and Democratic lobbyists to work on PartyGaming’s efforts to lift the ban. The Republican, Robert Kjellander, an Illinois lobbyist and former GOP national treasurer, is a close confidante of former White House adviser Karl Rove. The Democrat, Steven Schwadron, is a former chief of staff for Rep. Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts.

Congressional lobbying records show Schwadron represented Avatar on two legislative issues: Internet gaming and “legislation relating to wildfire prevention and suppression.”

Aside from being a midair refueling tanker, the IL-78 is touted by both Fears and NATA as a superb firefighting aircraft.

Fears says there is nothing mysterious about his business relationship with either Kjellander or Schwadron. “I knew Bob (Kjellander) from Springfield years ago, [and] Steve works for a law firm I use in D.C.,” says Fears. “Neither one of them are partners in Avatar. If someone is giving you advice … on the project, then better to be safe than sorry — you register them as having worked on that as well.”

The other major creditor of Air Support Systems is Chicago businessman Kevin Flynn, a casino executive and former gaming partner of Fears. The bankruptcy filing shows that in April 2008 Flynn secured a $1.3 million interest in the IL-78. Fears and Flynn crossed paths years earlier, when Flynn operated the Blue Chip Casino in Indiana. The two were later involved in a failed Indian casino development in California.

In 2001, the Illinois Gaming Board yanked Flynn’s long-dormant state license because two of his investors allegedly had ties to the Chicago mob.

At the time of the revocation, Flynn and his father, Donald Flynn, a former executive of Waste Management Inc., were seeking to transfer their existing gaming license from the shuttered Silver Eagle casino in East Dubuque, Illinois, so they could operate the proposed Emerald Casino in Rosemont, a Chicago suburb. Investors in the casino deal included a lineup of heavy hitters, including associates of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

But the state gaming board pulled the Flynns’ license because investors Nick Boscarino and Joseph Salamone were alleged to have ties to organized crime. Salamone, an Oak Park grocer, is the brother of Vito Salamone, a mob soldier who had originally been listed as a casino shareholder. Boscarino is a former Teamster official with close ties to Rosemont Mayor Donald E. Stephens. Boscarino and Stephens once owned a forklift rental company along with organized crime figure William Daddano Jr. The gaming board also cited Emerald for hiring a construction company owned by the wife of Peter M. DiFronzo, the brother of Chicago mob boss John “No Nose” DiFronzo.

The gaming board concluded that Flynn had displayed a “contentious pattern … of providing misleading information to the board and its staff.” “Other than his disagreement with the Illinois Gaming Board,” says Fears, “I don’t know any infraction of any kind that Kevin [Flynn] has ever been involved in.”

Grounded

The story of how Fears and his odd cast of creditors ended up with a grounded Ukrainian behemoth leaking fuel on the tarmac of an isolated airstrip in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan began four years ago.

The IL-78, which was formerly owned by the Ukrainian Air Force, departed Kiev on May 23, 2006, according to flight records. It refueled in Reykjavik, Iceland, before landing the next day at the North Texas Regional Airport, formerly Perrin Air Force Base, in Sherman, Texas. Tactical Air Defense Services, a private military-related start-up company formed by Fears, ran the operational arm of its enterprise at the airport, says retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Charles Searock.

“It was, at the time, the location of a training school wherein we were going to train foreign pilots,” says Searock, a seasoned combat pilot who flew more than 150 B-52 missions during the Vietnam War. The principal officers of TADS, Victor Miller and Mark Daniels, had signed up Searock to oversee the International Tactical Training Center, an ambitious program aimed at providing flight training for NATO pilots and others. Miller also owned and operated Air 1 Flight Services, an aviation maintenance service, at the same airport.

Neither Miller or Daniels could be reached for comment, but a lawsuit filed by the two men last year in Palm Beach County (Florida) Circuit Court provides a glimpse of what apparently transpired.

In March 2005, according to the suit, Fears and a group of Florida investors approached Miller and Daniels to offer financing for their company AeroGroup Inc., a Utah-incorporated military flight training contractor. At that time, AeroGroup had a pending contract to buy the IL-78 and other foreign military aircraft from NATA.

Fears and the other investors claimed that they had obtained control of a publicly traded Nevada mining company, Natalma Industries Inc., and intended to change its name to Tactical Air Defense Services Inc. The intended purpose of the newly formed entity was to raise tens of millions of dollars to bankroll the purchase of assets on behalf of AeroGroup, specifically to buy the IL-78, according to the lawsuit. Toward these ends, Fears solicited start-up capital from Jeff Horan of JT Hanco, according to the lawsuit.

However, the suit claims, instead of backing AeroGroup Fears diverted funds to set up Air Support Systems, which then bought the IL-78 for itself. In Air Support’s 2009 bankruptcy filing, Horan’s name is listed with Trident Response Group, the Dallas-based security firm, as having invested more than $2.5 million in the IL-78.

Miller and Daniels further alleged that when TADS purchased AeroGroup’s assets in 2006 the Florida investors were still contending that tens of millions of dollars would soon be available. A TADS prospectus states that the company was angling to team up with an unnamed competitor [NATA] to provide combat and midair refueling training with the IL-78 and other foreign aircraft. “We have a good chance of being awarded the contract,” the TADS document says.

But the deal never materialized.

“This whole thing was predicated on Air Force contracts that were being negotiated by Mr. Mark Daniels,” says Searock. The contracts, however, were never finalized. As a result, “when they went public with TADS it did not generate the income or the investors as they anticipated,” Searock says.

From Searock’s perspective, everything seemed to be on the level. “We would meet quarterly, sometimes more often, with Mr. Fears and the guys from Florida,” he recalls. “We met in Florida. We met a couple times in Dallas, as he was passing through, and a couple times he came to Sherman. I had no problem with him. We were involved in a lot of different things, including the tanker. There was no reason for me to suspect that these guys weren’t on the up-and-up, if they poured $5 or $6 million into getting this airplane [the IL-78] and having it totally refurbished and delivered. That was an expensive scheme, if it was a scheme.”

But Searock became disenchanted with his employers after he says he shelled out his own cash to cover operating expenses and wasn’t reimbursed. He resigned from his position at the end of 2006 and sued TADS and all of the principal players, including Fears, for back pay.

Miller and Daniels dropped their Florida lawsuit in April 2009 after reaching a settlement agreement with Fears and other investors. As owner of Air 1 Flight Services, however, Miller placed a lien for unpaid service costs on the IL-78 in Texas in June 2009.

Shortly before noon on July 17, 2009, a nine-member Ukrainian crew hired by NATA boarded the IL-78 and took off from North Texas Regional Airport. The flight plan called for the craft to refuel at Wittman Regional Airport, in Oshkosh, Wis., before leaving U.S. airspace and heading to Pakistan. Alerted to the plane’s departure, Miller filed a restraining order, and the plane was diverted to Sawyer International Airport, in Gwinn, Mich., where it has been stranded ever since as a result of litigation.

Despite the Michigan court ruling that favors Miller’s cause, Fears doesn’t believe that the lawsuit has any more validity than the earlier case filed in Florida that Miller and his partner chose not to pursue.

“Air Support Systems owns the plane. It’s registered with the FAA,” says Fears. “The whole thing was a huge misunderstanding and blown out of proportion by the press. Victor Miller and those guys checked with the FAA, found where the plane was at and called the local authorities and said, ‘They have left in violation of a court order.’” But Fears says there’s one problem with that allegation: “ NATA was never served with that court order.”

Fears says Miller’s aviation firm, Air 1 Flight Services, has been out of business for two years. “I can show you the agreement that Victor Miller signed and the release on the lien that shows those bills’ being paid,” says Fears. “It was a phony claim by a company that didn’t exist.

“This is a military aircraft — and it is going over to support the U.S. Air Force allied efforts over there [Afghanistan-Pakistan].”

In 1968, as a young man, Fears stumped for Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Wisconsin, who campaigned against the Vietnam War. Today, more than four decades later, he appears comfortable with the concept of profiting from warfare. When asked about his role as a modern day privateer, he paraphrases President George W. Bush’s first secretary of defense: “I think maybe it was [Donald] Rumsfeld who said, ‘If it’s not firing a gun, we should look at privatizing it.’”

Asked whether his activities are somehow involved with covert CIA operations, Fears laughs. “Not that I’m aware of,” he says. “I wish there was something that exciting to all this stuff that I was a CIA guy, but that’s not the case.”

This special report was funded by a grant from the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis.

Blind Spot

When two Pentagon bosses showed up to grab a chunk of the city back in December, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch discretely chose not to mention them or the new military landlord on the Northside.

 

Better Dead than Red: Warning sign at 23rd and Cass cites the Internal Security Act of 1950.

The sign cautions visitors they are not welcome to enter without the permission of the “Installation Commander.” Bold letters above the warning identify the site as a U.S. Air Force installation. The advisory is posted on a locked gate at 23rd and Cass in North St. Louis, one of the entry points to the 97-acre development site of the planned National Geospatial Intelligence Agency headquarters.

The city, which spent $100 million in taxpayers funds to prepare the property, gave it away to the Air Force back on December 13 at a ceremony held at the St. Louis Public Library’s main branch. But readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were not informed of the identity of the new landlord in the story by reporter Jacob Barker the next day. Nor were newspaper readers informed of two high-ranking military officials who attended the event.

One of the unmentioned officials in the Post story, was Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert H. McMahon, who gave a speech to the 300 people in attendance. The other Pentagon speaker the newspaper forgot about was Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Richard K. Hartley, a former CIA operative detached to the National Reconnaissance Office from 1997 to 2003.

Dec. 13, 2018 NGA Land Transfer Ceremony honorees: (from left) federal felon and former St. Louis Economic Development Partnership CEO Sheila Sweeney; unelected Missouri Gov. Mike Parson; Assistant Defense Secretary Robert McMahon, Deputy Assistant Air Force Secretary Richard K. Hartley, a former CIA agent; NGA Director Robert Cardillo; St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson; Rep Lacy Clay; Rep. Ann Wagner; Aldermanic President Louis Reed. (Photo courtesy of KMOX Radio, Debbie Monterrey)

In their comments, the two officials thanked St. Louisans  for their generosity, and alluded to the Air Force being happy to be “embedded” in St. Louis. Both military officials were applauded and warmly received by the audience. All the invited local dignities heaped praise on the cooperative spirit that was necessary to entice the spy agency to locate on the Northside. None hinted that it could be dangerous to locate a high-value enemy target in the middle of a densely populated urban area, nor did the Post story elude to this possible risk.

The warning sign on the gate of St. Louis’ new Air Force Installation prohibits entry to the site, citing the Internal Security Act of 1950, otherwise known as the Subversive Activities Control Act. President Harry Truman vetoed  that bill in September 1950, sending it back to Congress with a blistering message in which he slammed the legislation as “the greatest danger to freedom of speech, press, and assembly since the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798,” a “mockery of the Bill of Rights” and a “long step toward totalitarianism.” Influenced by the anti-communist hysteria of McCarthy Era, the House overwhelming overturned Truman’s veto.

St. Louis is now a garrison city. Its citizens paid for the privilege of being occupied.

 

A Good Day for a Hanging

Former County Executive Steve Stenger pleads not guilty to bribery, mail fraud, and theft of honest services, as giddiness infects the press gallery and U.S. Marshals hand out steno pads.

All Smiles: Former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger (fourth from left) poses with other dignitaries on Dec. 13, 2018 at the NGA Land Transfer ceremony held at the St. Louis Public Library Central Branch. Immediately behind Stenger is Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Richard K. Hartley, a former CIA operative attached to the National Reconnaissance Office, 1997 to 2003.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith stayed on script Monday afternoon, responding tersely to questions posed by a gaggle of reporters during a news conference held on the sidewalk outside the Thomas Eagleton Federal Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

“We are confident of our case,” Goldsmith said, referring to the three-count criminal indictment issued by the U.S. Justice Department against former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger. Following this vague answer, a veteran broadcast journalist turned aside and muttered to himself: “Great sound bite — six words.”

The dearth of prosecutorial verbosity and courthouse histrionics did not deter the assembled press, however, from relishing the proceedings in an amicable atmosphere akin to the camaraderie shared by farmers of bygone days who went to town to witness a hanging in the public square.

To commemorate the auspicious event, U.S. Marshals offered free notebooks and pens, but there were few takers. The journalists in attendance seemed satisfied to gloat rather than scribble. KMOV-TV hired a sketch artist for the occasion.

The only thing missing were picnic baskets.

After pleading not guilty to bribery, mail fraud and theft of honest services, Stenger was released on his own recognizance by Judge Noelle  C. Collins. Celebrated defense attorney Scott Rosenblum represented Stenger during the arraignment.

The second term Democrat resigned from public office Monday morning following the release of the indictments. He had won reelection in November but continued to be dogged by allegations of corruption involving favors granted to campaign contributors, including businessman John Rallo. The scandal, which played out in the pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and before the St. Louis County Council over the course of the last year, centered on the actions of Stenger underling Shelia Sweeney, CEO of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.

Five Post-Dispatch reporters contributed to the story today. A pack of TV and radio reporters were also present.

One of the many questions not asked of Goldsmith at his sidewalk press conference was whether federal investigators are probing the contract between the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and Kit Bond Strategies, the lobbying firm of former U.S. Sen. Kit Bond and his wife.

In January 2016,   Linda Bond, the former senator’s wife, signed a contract with St. Louis Economic Development Partnership CEO Sheila Sweeney. The Development Partnership is a joint government agency of the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County, which wields broad powers and operates largely in the shadows with the benefit of millions of dollars in annual payments from  casino interests raked in by the St. Louis County Port Authority, an agency that shares the same staff as the Development Partnership. The County Port Authority’s purpose has nothing to do with ports. Instead, it acts as a conduit for the casino payments.

In 2016 and 2017, the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership funneled $230,000 of public funds to Kit Bond Strategies, according to federal lobbying reports. Part of that total went to pay for the failed congressional effort to turn the West Lake Landfill Superfund Site over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — an agency that expressed serious reservations about assuming the responsibility for taking control of the project in the first place. The exact amount spent specifically on the West Lake lobbying effort is uncertain. A request under the Missouri Sunshine Law for further details was denied last fall.  But this much is known:  the development agency’s contract called for KBS to be paid $10,000 a month for its services. The lobbying records show that the public money was doled out to the lobbyist in quarterly payments. The St. Louis Economic Development Partnership paid the lobbying firm an additional $60,000 in 2018 , but by then the effort to persuade Congress to turn the West Lake clean up over to the Corps had been dropped.

Note: Stenger pleaded guilty on May 3. 

Rip Off

Judges in Paradise: Headquarters of Global Security Service near Festus, which is also the residence of the owner of the business — Judge Ed Page, and his wife, Judge Lisa Pagano Page.

Global Security Service — a company founded by convicted murderer William N. Pagano — overcharged the St. Louis Parks Department $285,000 over a period of years, but when the jig was finally up, the feds refused to prosecute. Instead, they claimed the politically-connected firm had been duped. 

The swindle continued undetected for several years, with the co-conspirators funneling misappropriated funds in monthly installments to a dummy corporation located in a South St. Louis County strip mall. Gradually, the pilfering added up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The majority of the graft involved a city contractor with a checkered history — Global Security Service. But a federal probe concluded that the firm itself was an unwitting victim in the scam.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 6, 2013.

Two  St. Louis Parks Department officials pleaded guilty to the crime in 2013 and received light prison sentences. In addition to Global Security, two other city contractors avoided prosecution. 

Appearing before Judge Carol E. Jackson at the sentencing of one of the defendants, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith absolved Global Security and the other vendors of complicity in the scheme, saying “we believe they were duped.” The embezzlement by the high-ranking city employees netted a total of nearly $500,000 from the St. Louis Parks Department. $285,000 of that amount was due to the creative accounting methods of Global Security.

Global Security is owned by Jefferson County Associate Circuit Court Judge Edward L. Page, who took control of the business in 1992, after his father-in-law. William N. Pagano, was charged with murder. Page is married to Pagano’s daughter, Lisa Pagano Page. William Pagano founded Global Security in 1987, while serving as the Festus, Mo. police chief. In 1991, Pagano was charged with homicide in the shooting death of  Mark Todd, a top lieutenant in Pagano’s private security guard service. Pagano was convicted of the crime, but never served time because he committed suicide in 1994, after his appeals efforts had been exhausted.

Jefferson County Associate Circuit Court Judge Ed Page, the late William Pagano’s son-in-law and current president of Global Security Service.

Pagano’s tragic death did not thwart the growth of the company he founded, however. Under his son-in-law’s ownership, Global Security thrived, and mushroomed into one of the largest private security services in the Midwest. Between 2009 and 2013, the company raked in more than $2 million from its city contract alone, providing guard services to the train station, bus depot, Soldiers Memorial and other city-owned sites.

The deal with the city started going sideways when Global Security became involved in the scheme hatched by Deputy Parks Commissioner Joseph Vacca and chief park ranger Thomas “Dan” Stritzel to embezzle city funds under the guise of acquiring additional equipment not provided for in the city budget, according to the federal indictments. The ruse continued for years, with Global Security overcharging the city and funneling the excess money to Dynamic Management Group, a dummy corporation set up by David Michael Goetz, a friend and business associate of Stritzel. But Goldsmith, the federal prosecutor, argued in 2013 that Global Security was an unwitting participant, and, therefore, not complicit.

Then-St. Louis Parks Department Commissioner Gary Bess admitted no foreknowledge of wrongdoing and apologized for the actions of his subordinates. A  little more than a year late, in January 2015, he retired from his long-held city position, and was immediately appointed director of the St. Louis County Parks Department by newly elected St. Louis County Executive Stenger.  Bess resigned his county post last month in the wake of the ouster of Stenger, who pleaded guilty to unrelated federal corruption charges.

Page was recently elected on the Republican ticket as an Associate Circuit Court Judge in Jefferson County. Jefferson County unlike the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County is not bound by the non-partisan court plan. Page’s  wife is a jurist of higher standing. Lisa Page, the daughter of the late William N. Pagano, was appointed to the Missouri Court of Appeals by then-Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, in December 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mafia and Rex Sinquefield

In his bid to privatize the St. Louis airport, billionaire Rex Sinquefield jumped in bed with a consultant with mob ties, according to the feds.

Jeff Aboussie, a consultant connected to billionaire Rex Sinquefield’s scheme to privatize Lambert International Airport, has Mafia ties dating back to the 1980s, STLReporter has learned.

Aboussie’s Mafia connections are referenced in background information included in a 1988 federal appeals court ruling on a case involving convicted racketeer Sorkis Webbe Jr., a criminal associate of Aboussie’s.

Nov. 25, 1983 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The  information is contained in an Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling and is based on an FBI wiretap that captured conversations in which Aboussie discussed efforts to track down a rival gang member during a protracted turf war between competing factions of the St. Louis underworld in the early 1980s. The background in the appeals court decision names Aboussie as being associated with a Kansas City, Missouri organized crime family. The appeals court ruling goes on to say that Aboussie provided support to one side of the gang war by “contacting the Denver and Chicago crime families.”

Aboussie, who now resides in the affluent suburban town of Wildwood, is the former head of the St. Louis Building and Constructions Trades Council. Prior to heading the council, he was affiliated with Operating Engineers Union Local 513. Aboussie resigned from the St. Louis Airport Commission in 2016 to form Regional Strategies, a consulting firm connected to Grow Missouri,  the non-profit corporation formed by Sinquefield to push the billionaire’s plan to privatize the city-owned airport. Aboussie was appointed to the commission by former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger in 2015. Stenger resigned last month and pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges. 

 Webbe — Aboussie’s past partner in crime —  played a pivotal role in the federal sting that ultimately brought down Stenger, introducing the politician to shady businessman John Rallo and also attending a meeting with Stenger and St. Louis Economic Development Partnership CEO Sheila Sweeney. Stenger and Sweeney pleaded guilty earlier this month for their roles in the pay-to-play scheme. Rallo later changed his decision andpleaded guilty to the same charges. Webbe was not charged. 

In 1983, Webbe and Aboussie were implicated by the feds in a conspiracy to harbor a fugitive wanted for participating in a series of gangland car-bombings here. The feds indicted Aboussie for lying to a federal grand jury about the plot. 

Aboussie later pleaded guilty to insurance fraud in a separate federal criminal case and received a six-month sentence and five years probation. As a part of the same 1985 plea deal, the feds dropped the perjury charges. The full terms of the plea deal remain unknown.

In the current investigation, the U.S. attorney’s office here subpoenaed the personnel records of Lou Aboussie, Jeff Aboussie’s first cousin. Lou Aboussie was hired by Stenger in 2015 at an annual salary of more than $75,000. At the time of his resignation earlier this year, he was listed as working for the County Parks Department, then-headed by Gary Bess, another Stenger appointee who also quit in the shakeup of County government that took place in the wake of the federal indictments of Stenger and his accomplices. Lou Aboussie was formerly an aide to U.S . Rep. Lacy Clay.