Thomas Eagleton

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DIOXIN, PCBS, THE MILITARY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX AND NATIONAL SECURITY

BY C.D. STELZER

Previously unpublished, Feb. 14, 1996

Whenever PCBs or dioxin are mentioned, secrecy seems to
descends: doors close, sources become unavailable,
Freedom of Information requests go wanting, and lies are
told.  
     Former U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) recognized
early the consequences of such a flawed policy.  "If we
were discussing national security such as the A-bomb or
nuclear warheads, I could see where there would have to
be a cloak of secrecy," Eagleton told the St. Louis
Globe-Democrat in 1982. ... "But we are discussing a
situation that is affecting people's lives. ... The worst
thing is for there to be secret leaks that may be
misleading to the people in those affected areas,"
Eagleton said.     
     That the senator referred to national security is
telling. From the beginning, the military-industrial
complex has inhabited the edges of the dioxin
controversy. 
     Hoffman-Taff and Monsanto, of course, both
originally  manufactured a chemical component of Agent
Orange for use by the Army in Vietnam. But Monsanto's
military connections predates that era by decades. As far
back as World War II, the chemical company did work for
the government. In 1944, for example, the St. Louis Star
Times reported that Monsanto had gained approval from the
Army to produce a catapulting rocket" fashioned after the
German "robot bomb," an allusion probably to the early V
2 missiles used by the Nazis. 
     Another intriguing detail is that Syntex -- 
Hoffman-Taff's  parent and the company ultimately held
liable for the Times Beach cleanup --  is incorporated in
Panama, a center for clandestine banking and
international espionage.
      The Roche Group, a Swiss-based pharmaceutical
conglomerate bought Syntex in 1994. During World War I,
the allies suspected Hoffman-LaRoche of aiding Germany.
More recently, the company's American subsidiary 
provided a hallucinogenic drug, quinuclidinyl benzilate,
known as BZ, to the U.S. Army. The Army Chemical Corp is
reported to have conducted human experiments using BZ  at
the Edgewood Arsenal between 1959 and 1974.  
     There are also indications of a close working
association between public health officials and the
military. As already stated, health officials were
steered to the Verona plant by the Defense Contract
Administrations Services, a part of the Pentagon. In
addition, one of the early investigators of the Missouri
dioxin case had a background tied to the armed forces. 
In a 1975 deposition relating to the Piatt case, Coleman
Carter, a physician for the U.S. Public Health Service
(PHS), testified he had joined the health agency less
than two years before, while still a commissioned officer
on active reserve duty. Carter worked under the auspices
of the Epidemiological Intelligence Services (EIS).  EIS
had been specifically set up to respond to the threat of
biological warfare, according to Alexander D. Langmuir,
the chief epidemiologist for the PHS  from 1949 to 1970. 
     In addition, the Bliss Waste Oil Co. picked up used
motor oil from Ft. Leonard Wood near Rolla. One former
Bliss driver alleged that the company also collected
waste from Scott Air Force Base near Belleville.  IPC,
the St. Louis company that sub-contracted Bliss to haul
the dioxin-contaminated waste from Verona, was a
subsidiary of Charter Oil.  During the 1970s, Charter Oil
engaged fugitive financier Robert Vesco, and Billy
Carter, the brother of Pres. Jimmy Carter, to negotiate
trade deals with Libyan dictator Moammer al-Qaddafi.
     Perhaps the most bizarre footnote to this toxic
odyssey are the tete-a-tetes Bliss reportedly shared with
the late U.S. Rep. Richard Ichord (D-Mo.)  In a 1980
prison interview,  an alleged Bliss Waste Oil Co.
employee, recalled witnessing  meetings between his
former employer and the ultra-conservative congressman. A
transcript of the interview is on file at the IEPA
offices in Collinsville.  According to the transcript,
DNR and EPA officials and an assistant Missouri attorney
general interviewed inmate Scott Rollins at the Missouri
Penitentiary in Jefferson City. Rollins is quoted as
saying Bliss met Ichord, on more than one occasion, at an
unspecified restaurant and the two would sometimes leave
together. 
     Ichord is probably most remembered for being the
last chairman of the House Un-American Activities
Committee, and a zealous anti-communist. After leaving
office, he became a lobbyist for the extreme-rightwing
American Freedom Coalition, which received funding from
the Unification Church, founded in Korea by the Rev. Sun
Myung Moon. During his tenure in Congress, the
congressman also strongly supported chemical weapons. In
1980, Ichord pushed a more than $3 million appropriation
through Congress for a binary nerve gas facility at the 
Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas. In the prison interview,
Rollins mentions that Bliss also did business in that
state, but didn't say where. 
     Whether the congressman and the waste oil hauler
ever met is, for now at least, still a matter of
conjecture. But it is clear that they both, in their own
ways, contributed to massive pollution problems. The Army
is now faced with destroying tons of chemical weapons. 
In this way, it faces the same kind of problem the EPA
has at Times Beach. Local residents in both circumstances
oppose the use of incineration as a means of destroying 
toxic chemicals.  
     In a 1970 speech before the St. Louis County Chamber
of Commerce, Ichord, warned that the environmental
movement could someday be subverted by the radical left.
Speaking at Slay's  restaurant in Affton, the congressman
said, "Solving the problems of pollution will require
sound and pragmatic actions from state and city
governments, plus massive volunteer activities as well as
the support you have the right to expect from the federal
government."      
     Although Taylor, the organizer for TBAG, would
likely not match the late congressman's profile of a good
citizen, he agrees that the federal government, in
particular Congress, does have an important obligation. 
     "The Times Beach Action Group has always wanted to
uncover the truth about what's been happening with these
toxic sites," says Taylor. "We have requested a
congressional investigation from (Rep.) Jim Talent. Also,
we've sent a letter requesting (the same) of (Sen.
Christopher "Kit") Bond."
      TBAG hasn't heard back from Bond. They're not
holding their breath.