The recent coup in county government installed an old crop of political insiders to oversee the public use of casino cash. Has anything really changed?
The last six months have been tumultuous for St. Louis County government, culminating in the recent resignation of County Executive Steve Stenger and his pleading guilty to federal corruption charges.
His partners in crime included St. Louis Economic Development Partnership CEO Sheila Sweeney and businessman John Rallo. Sweeney also directed the St. Louis County Port Authority before she resigned in January. The scheme in which the three participated involved funneling rent payments from the River City Casino to the County Port Authority. The money was then passed on to the Development Partnership, where some of it ended up being used to award contracts to Rallo in exchange for his campaign contributions.
The complicated conspiracy was exposed by enterprising reporters at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who doggedly pursued various parts of the scam for more than a year. After the feds indicted Stenger and the two others, the U.S. Attorney’s Office took over the narrative. As stories go, this one is beginning to play out. The official version of events has been crafted in the federal indictments. Soon the newspaper coverage will dwindle and stop, subsumed by other news — leaving things to return to normal.
Shakeups such as this provide rare opportunities to glimpse under the proverbial rock to see the creepy, crawly machinations of local politics. But that chance never lasts too long. In the aftermath of such scandals such as this, a mop-up crew is quickly dispatched to restore the status quo, place the listing ship of government once again on an even keel. The fact that the boat may have been off course to begin with is never questioned.
GI’s back in World War II invented an acronym to describe such circumstances — snafu — “situation normal all fucked up..” In this case, the 4th Estate has predictably lauded itself for exposing wrongdoing, while law enforcement and the judiciary have taken pride in meting out justice. Meanwhile, inside County government its business as usual, funny business.
Last November, in the lead up to Stenger’s ultimate downfall, the St. Louis County Council appointed members to its own St. Louis County Port Authority, which has now replaced the board appointed by Stenger. The interim director of the new and improved Port Authority is Denny Coleman, former director of the St. Louis County Economic Development Council, the precursor to the Development Partnership. In his previous leadership capacity, Coleman was responsible for helping to score the deal that resulted in Penn National Gaming Inc. — the current owners of the River City Casino — paying an estimated $5 million in rent annually to the St. Louis County Port Authority.
Coleman will keep an eye on the casino cash with the the newly installed Port Authority board, which is now chaired by attorney John W. Maupin, a Republican appointed to the position in November by then-District 2 Councilman Sam Page. Page, of course, is now the newly unelected County Executive who replaced Stenger.
Maupin has led a distinguished career as an attorney, but his record as a public servant includes its share of controversy.
In 1995, then-State Auditor Margaret Kelly issued a scathing report that blamed the Missouri Ethics Commission — then chaired by Maupin — for failure to enforce campaign finance disclosure laws, hiding information from the public, and making an unauthorized payment, according to a story by Post-Dispatch reporter Terry Ganey. When confronted by Kelly’s findings, Maupin shirked responsibility and denied all wrongdoing by the commission and its staff.
That’s enough raise an eyebrow as to why Page and the County Council would appoint Maupin to the Port Authority in the wake of the latest flap.
But that’s not all. In 1997, with Maupin still at the helm of the Ethics Commission, the Post-Dispatch reported on a lawsuit filed by attorney Ronald Jenkins, who the commission had appointed as a special prosecutor in 1994 to probe campaign finance violations by then-St. Louis City Comptroller Virvus Jones. Jenkins had sued the commission to be reimbursed for his legal services, but the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled against him, which seems straight forward enough.
Another story in the same edition of the newspaper, however, raises questions as to why Maupin and the Missouri Ethics Commission appointed Jenkins as special prosecutor in the first place. Because by then, Jenkins, the special prosecutor, was acting as the criminal defense attorney for Amiel Cueto, the attorney and business partner of Eastside racketeer Thomas Venezia. Cueto and Venezia would both be convicted on federal racketeering charges.
Jenkins is a partner in the law firm of Jenkins & Kling along with Stephen Kling Jr. and his spouse Rebecca Kling. Stephen Kling Jr. is the son of the late S. Lee Kling. S. Lee Kling was the founder of Landmark Bancshares in St. Louis and a Democratic power broker. He died in 2008. S. Lee Kling was President Jimmy Carter’s national campaign finance chief and a campaign financial advisor to U.S. Rep Dick Gephardt for years.
There’s always trouble in River City, but only a small bit of it ever sees the light of day.