Department of Energy

Wild’s Thing

A former Thompson Coburn partner — tarnished by the Michael Lazaroff scandal — now works as a lawyer for the University of Missouri. His duties include pitching the sale of Mizzou’s property in St. Charles County, a plan that could result in a controversial subdivision being built near the KATY Trail. As the plan edges forward, the school continues to rely on Thompson Coburn’s skills to oversee a wide range of its financial affairs. Mizzou says there’s no conflict of interest. 

Go Tigers!: Mizzou lawyers Kevin Hogg (left) and Steven R. Wild appearing before the St. Charles County County Council on April 9.

In 2016, attorney Steven R. Wild left his partnership at the St. Louis silk-stocking law firm of Thompson Coburn to become a public servant. At his former firm, he had specialized in finance and real estate law for 17 years, cutting $1 billion in complex agreements that melded public and private interests.  Wild’s new employer — the University of Missouri — acquired his legal acumen for an annual salary of $130,000, a pittance considering his level of expertise.

It was a serious mid-career move for a lawyer of his prowess, a choice that must have demanded considerable deliberation. But for Mizzou, at least, the decision to hire Wild was a slam dunk. The university was well aware of the law firm’s sterling reputation because it has been a client of Thompson Coburn for decades.

With the exception of one incident earlier in his career, Wild possessed impeccable credentials, too. Wild’s intimate familiarity with the law was matched by decades spent forging professional contacts in the legal and business worlds. Mizzou hired a consummate insider, a Vanderbilt-educated lawyer with one of the top law firms in the state.

All of this would be academic, if not for the role he now plays in the controversial land sale approved by the St. Charles County Council last week. On June 25, the council voted five to one, with one abstention, to allow the University of Missouri to sell property in its Missouri Research Park to NT Home Builders, a St. Charles-based residential development company owned by real estate tycoon Greg Whittaker.

The proposal had been the subject of discussion before the Council for months, and Wild was one of the university’s point men. When he attended the April 9 St. Charles County Council meeting in support of the university’s property sale, his presence did not go unnoticed. Council Chairman Dave Hammond kowtowed and offered laurels. Hammond was so accommodating he bumped up Wild and another university barrister to appear before the council ahead of the attorney representing the developer, an ingratiating gesture that signaled the clout that the Mizzou’s  legal team wields. When viewed from council’s side of the dais, nothing about Hammond’s fawning behavior was inappropriate  On the contrary, it was a display of courtesy and decorum. Wild’s role didn’t even require a speaking part. All he had to do is show up. The public performance, scripted by Roberts Rules of Order,  could not have appeared more innocuous.

What’s gone down behind the scenes, however, is anybody’s guess because council’s executive sessions are held behind closed doors.

A state Sunshine Law request for information submitted to the university last week by StlReporter  — asking for details of the sales agreement between the university and the developer — was denied by the school’s custodian of records. “This is the final response to your Sunshine Law request,” wrote Paula Barrett, the University of Missouri’s Custodian of Records. “The documents responsive to your request are closed.” Barrett cited fine print in a state statute that prohibits the public from being informed of the terms of the sale of public property before the state closes on it.

As if  these stealthy maneuvers were not enough, there’s another nettlesome problem with the deal that hasn’t been broached until recently. The land the school is intent on ridding itself of is adjacent to the Weldon Spring Conservation Area, which is contaminated with radioactive waste. The Department of Energy has declared that area safe for recreational purposes, but unsafe for full-time residency. During months of public discussion, this thorny detail was never mentioned by the university.

With its reputation hanging in the balance, Mizzou is counting on its rainmakers in its legal department to quickly close the sale and simultaneously maintain some semblance of public trust. It’s a tricky act to pull off.

To assure the public that the university’s actions are beyond reproach, Wild is required to recuse himself from any cases involving Thompson Coburn, says Christian Basi, a University of Missouri spokesperson. “In a nutshell, there is no conflict of interest,” says Basi. While a partner at Thompson Coburn, Wild never engaged in any legal work involving land surrounding the golf course, Basi says, referring to the property where the residential development is planned. Wild’s professional experience, says Basi, is a “strength,” and his presence “adds experience to the office of general counsel at the university.”

But that’s where the curtain falls. The university stopped short of revealing any details of the sale, citing the confidentiality clause of the state statute. Upholding the letter, if not the spirit of the law, Mizzou is not obligated by law to reveal details of the deal until its done.

Thompson Coburn is equally reticent. Reached for comment on last week, Bill Rowe, a spokesman for Thompson Coburn, declined to give details of the law firm’s relationship with the university, citing client-attorney confidentiality. But the spokesman confirmed that the University of Missouri remains “a significant client in a variety of areas.” Lack of transparency surrounding the deal, including withholding the sale price from the public and declining to consider other offers, has led to rumors of political corruption.

This much is not secret: Mizzou has bet its financial future on the soundness of Thompson Coburn’s advice. In 2014, for example, the law firm handled the issuance of nearly $300 million in revenue bonds for Mizzou. The stakes have risen even higher in recent years. Declines in enrollment have strapped the university’s coffers. As its fiduciary, Thompson Coburn is bound to make decisions based on the interests of its client’s longterm solvency. The highly valued acreage in St. Charles County overlooking the Missouri River is among the university’s disposable assets. It is easy to understand why any financial advisor would counsel the school to sell given the circumstances. Whether such discussion took place is uncertain. 

The ties that bind Thompson Coburn and Mizzou together go beyond the bottom line, however. There is a personal side to the longstanding affair, too. Wild’s former law partner Tom Minogue — the chairman of the firm– is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri St. Louis and currently sits on the Chancellor’s Council at UMSL.

Be True to Your School: Thompson Coburn Chairman Tom Minogue

For months, the contentious issue has spurred critics to send hundreds of emails to their elected officials, demanding the plan be scrapped. Adversaries have packed the gallery at St. Charles County Council meetings, and also posted informational notices along the KATY Trail. Moreover, the St. Charles County Planning and Zoning Commission sided with the opponents, recommending rejecting the plan 8 to 1 earlier this year. Nevertheless, the county council inexplicably gave the green light to the plan last week, allowing the sale of the property to move forward.

By law, real estate transactions are a matter of the public record, but the negotiations preceding the closure of the deal are not. This rule is applicable even when the one of the sales parties is a state-owned, public institution. It’s a loophole that allows Mizzou, in this case, to hold secret talks and withhold all the details of the sale of public land from taxpayers. In most situations, deals like this would probably not raise an eyebrow. But building a pricey subdivision near a popular state park and a state-owned conservation area is an exception to that rule. Adding to the controversy is the Department of Energy’s restrictions on nearby land use, which prohibits full-time occupancy on adjacent property due to the presence of radioactive contamination. To seal a sketchy deal like this requires masterful salesmanship and extensive legal skills.

As an associate, Wild honed his skills at Thompson Coburn, learning the art of the deal by following in the footsteps of more senior members of the firm. Beginning in the late 1990s, he cut his teeth hashing out complex real real estate issues, including representing the St. Louis Marketplace in litigation related to the city of St. Louis’ use of tax-increment-financing to take residences through eminent domain for a private retail development. Michael Lazaroff, Wild’s mentor, was the mastermind behind that boondoggle.

Lazaroff left Thompson Coburn in 2000 in the wake of a corruption scandal that rocked the law firm. He was disbarred and pleaded guilty to pocketing $500,000 in under-the-table payments from Station Casino from 1994 to 1996. Station Casino has a dark past. Its founder was a known associate of the Civella crime family of Kansas City, and was implicated in

Former Thompson Coburn partner Michael Lazaroff.

skimming money from Las Vegas casinos in the 1970s for the Mafia. In 2000, hearings conducted by a special investigative committee of the state legislature probed illegal meetings Lazaroff held on behalf of his client — Station Casino — with the then-chairman of the gambling commission.

At the same time, Lazaroff was also convicted for making illegal political campaign contributions that involved Wild’s cooperation. Wild and three other lawyers took part in the scam. With Wild’s cooperation, Lazaroff skirted federal campaign finance laws that then limited the amount of contributions by having his colleagues contribute money for him and then reimbursing them. The donations were made to the campaigns of then-Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley. The secretary of former U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton, a senior partner at Thompson Coburn, was also implicated. Wild and the others involved in the illegal bundling of contributions issued an apology and were not charged.

That was 18 years ago. Nothing much seems to have changed in the intervening years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Security Itself Becomes a Threat

Republic Services, owner of the radioactively-contaminated West Lake landfill,  employs a security guard service with historical ties to the CIA, DOE and State Department.  

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The motto emblazoned on its vehicles is “Securing Your World.”  But G4 Security Solutions’ job in Bridgeton, Mo. is a tad more parochial: It guards Republic Services’ polluted property.  The gig sounds like little more than a standard rent-a-cop deal. But there are reasons to suspect otherwise.

As the underground fire continues to burn unimpeded towards the radioactive waste at West Lake, things have heated up on the surface as well.

Vigilance became a corporate imperative following protests staged by the Earth Defense Coalition on March 31. In the wake of that demonstration, Republic, the owner of the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill, pledged to prevent future disruptions of its business from occurring, and G4S Security Solutions is responsible for keeping that promise.

The protest shutdown Republic’s trash sorting operations at the location for 12 hours, after environmental activists blocked the entrance of the troubled landfill, demanding the EPA relinquish control of the site and handover the clean up duties to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The security company finds itself in the middle of a battle between private interests and public health. Despite its central role in the controversy,  G4S’s presence has garnered little attention until now.

Patrolling the perimeter of the West Lake Superfund site is the most obvious part of G4S’s job description.  Whether the security company has additional duties related to protecting Republic Services’ interests is unclear. But if the history of the security company’s operations are any indication, G4S’s role at West Lake may involve more than just manning the guardhouse at the front entrance.

That’s because the British corporation inherited the cloak and dagger reputation of Wackenhut Security, after merging with the notorious American espionage firm in the early 2000s.  The cost of that buyout was pegged at $500 million.

Besides offering guard services, Wackenhut specialized in intelligence gathering, and keeping tabs on millions of American citizens suspected of being left-wing subversives or communist sympathizers.

George Wackenhut, a former FBI agent, founded the company in the 1950s during the McCarthy era.  In the intervening years, Wackenhut Security grew in size and influence, scoring hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts from federal agencies, including the Department of Energy and U.S. State Department. By the early 1990s, Wackenhut Security was known as the “shadow CIA,” because of the clandestine services it offered to the intelligence community both at home and abroad.

G4S, Wackenhut’s successor, was founded in 2004, when the British multinational security company Securicor merged with a Danish counterpart, Group 4 Falck.

Today, G4S Security Solutions is inextricably tethered to Wackenhut’s tainted legacy. Its British parent company boasts more than 60,000 employees in 125 nations, and is reputedly among the largest employers in Europe and Africa.  Closer to home, its American operation has the dubious distinction of being the employer of Omar Mateen, the mass murderer who killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at an Orlando nightclub last year.

Not surprisingly, G4S Security Solutions denies any culpability for that horrid act.  The Jupiter, Florida-based company, after all, can attribute the mass shooting by its longtime employee as being a random act of violence. It’s not quite as easy to deny the nefarious legacy of Wackenhut Security, however.

G4S now owns it.

By the mid-1960s, Wackenhut was known to be keeping dossiers on more than four million Americans, having acquired the files of a former staffer of the House Committee on Un-American activities. In response to congressional reforms in the post-Watergate era, Wackenhut donated its cache of blacklisted individuals to the virulent anti-communist Church League of America in Wheaton, Illinois, but didn’t give up access to the information. The league cooperated closely with the so-called “red squads” of big city police departments from coast to coast  that spied on suspected communist agitators.

By the early 1990s, Wackenhut was the largest provider of security services to U.S. embassies around the world, including U.S. State Department missions in Chile, Greece and El Salvador, where the CIA was known to have colluded with right-wing death squads.

Wackenhut also guarded nuclear sites in Hanford, Wash. and Savannah River, S.C.  and the Nevada nuclear test site for the Department Energy and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission.

As the company gained more power, it recruited an influential board of directors that included former FBI director Clarence Kelley and Defense Secretary and CIA deputy director Frank Carlucci. William Casey, President Ronald Reagan’s CIA director, served as Wackenhut’s lawyer before joining the Reagan administration.

There is also evidence during the Iran-Contra era of the 1980s that Wackenhut worked for the CIA to supply the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein with dual-use technology that could be utilized to make chemical and nuclear weapons.

It could be argued that G4S Security Solutions’ current services at West Lake are unrelated to its predecessor’s tainted past. But many of the residents of St. Louis whose lives have been impacted by Republic Services’ radioactively-contaminated landfill would likely not agree that history is inconsequential.

They already know better.

 

 

The Mayor’s Partner

Gerhard J. Petzall, a former law partner of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, was a director of Spectrulite Consortium Inc., which owned and operated an Eastside plant contaminated with radioactive waste.  After the problem came to light, the company forced its union work force to strike, filed for bankruptcy, and then reorganized under a different name, selling half the business to a foreign conglomerate. 

I collared outgoing St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay at the Earth Day celebration in Forest Park back in 2013 and asked him for a spot interview. He  told me then that he didn’t have time to go on camera for even a few minutes to talk about St. Louis’ longstanding radioactive waste problem.  He was too busy that sunny Sunday afternoon promoting some other well-intentioned environmental cause. It might have been recycling. As a result, the mayor does not appear in our documentary, The First Secret City.

But Richard Callow, the mayor’s longtime political consultant, does make a cameo appearance in the film. Aside from representing the mayor, Callow has also been a local spokesman for Republic Services, the giant waste disposal company that owns the radioactively-contaminated West Lake Landfill Superfund site in North St. Louis County. In that role, Callow has acted to tamp down public concerns about the severity of the environmental and health problems related to the troubled landfill.

Callow, however,  is not the only link between the mayor and the radioactive waste that has plagued the region since it first began piling up as a byproduct of Mallinkcrodt Chemical’s work on the Manhattan Project.

As it turns out,  Gerhard J. Petzall — the mayor’s former law partner — has past ties to the now-defunct Spectrulite Consortium Inc., a company that owned a plant  in Madison, Illinois contaminated with radioactive waste from the Cold War.  Missouri incorporation records  show that Gerhard J. Petzall, a senior partner in the politically-connected law firm of Guilfoil Petzall & Shoemake, sat on the board of directors of Spectrulite for years and continued  act as an attorney for the company until 2009.

By that time, Slay was in his second term as St. Louis mayor. Slay was a partner in Guilfoil Petzall & Shoemake for 20 years prior to becoming mayor.

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The problems at Spectrulite began in 1957 when the foundry was owned by Dow Chemical Co. Dow processed uranium at the plant between 1957 and 1961 under a subcontract with St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt Chemical Co., which was working for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Dow’s work caused radioactive debris to accumulate on overhead girders — where it was ignored for decades. In 2000, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversaw a partial radioactive cleanup at the Spectrulite plant.

The Department of Energy conducted the first radiological testing at the facility in March 1989, which showed elevated levels of Uranium-238 and Thorium-232. A story published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the previous month had spurred the government to do the testing. The story was based  in part on the earlier research of Kay Drey. In 1979, the St. Louis environmental activist had interviewed a terminally-ill truck driver who had delivered uranium ingots from Mallinckrodt Chemical in North St. Louis to the Dow plant in Madison. The truck driver attributed his lung cancer to his occupational exposure to radiation in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The plant at Weaver and College streets operates today as Magnesium Elektron of North America, a non-union company and a subsidiary of Luxfur Group of Great Britain. After going bankrupt in 2003,  Spectrulite’s owners sold the company, but continue to hold a stake in the operation and the property itself.

Oddly enough, Spectrulite  remained an active corporation in Missouri — with Petzall’s name appearing in its annual reports long after the business had filed for bankruptcy in federal court in East St. Louis, Ill.  The records show that Petzall continued to be listed as a director of the corporation until 2003, and his name still appeared as a counsel for the by-then non-existent company until 2009.  Spectrulite never operated its manufacturing plant in Missouri. The plant was located across the river in Illinois. But the bankrupt, Illinois-based company, which had been sold to a foreign concern, remained an active corporation in Missouri for six years after its apparent demise; proof that there is life after death at least in the legal world.

Mayor Slay leaves office next week, after serving an unprecedented four terms.  Petzall, the mayor’s legal mentor,  will celebrate his 86th birthday in June.