By Lindsay Toler
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In various contentious predicaments as development czar and deputy mayor for hizzoner, St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon, Mike Jones has resorted to the same tactic. When folks wanted to save the Arena, Jones said the Barn had to be demolished or he'd quit his job. This time, when heat was directed his way because of charges that his wife did insurance business for the convention-center-hotel project, or the airport, or ConnectCare, or fill-in-the-blank, Jones said that if it came down to which of them would quit, he'd leave his post at the right hand of the mayor before he'd ask his wife to quit peddling insurance.
That was last Tuesday. Contacted in his office late Friday afternoon, Jones takes a slightly different tack, blaming Aldermanic President Francis Slay's mayoral campaign for leaking the "deputy mayor's girlfriend or wife benefits from contracts on city projects" story to the press. Long rumored to be leaving the mayor's staff to pursue a private job or to head the St. Louis Development Corp., Jones says this recent flap has steeled his commitment to stay on with Harmon. Jones believes that no matter how much Slay denies it, the story was planted by Slay's campaign.
"He would say no, it didn't, and I know better. There's no point in getting into that. But that's really where it came from," says Jones, noting that when he became engaged in March 1999, he warned his future wife how politics could be. "We talked about it. I told her, 'I've been doing this a long time. I don't know who and I don't know when, but one day this will be an issue.' I would say Francis took his best shot," Jones says. "He just got my attention. I'm planning on staying the deputy mayor. Whatever I do in the capacity of development, I will do under the auspices of deputy mayor for the city of St. Louis."
Slay, for the moment, is unfazed. "So he's punishing me? I don't know what that means," Slay says of Jones' pledge to stay with Harmon. "I'm not running against Mike Jones, nor do I dislike Mike Jones."
What Jones' statement does mean is, in an administration that has seen more than one lifeboat fill up with people who have then either dived or been thrown overboard, one much-rumored exit looks as if it won't happen. Jones, the point man for the $242 million convention hotel and other development projects, says he's staying put, at least through next spring's election. About one-third, or $80.7 million, of the hotel project is a direct commitment of city funds or future Community Development Block Grant dollars.
As for the allegations about the deputy mayor, the story as reported was that the insurance firm providing the "wrap around" insurance for the convention-hotel project, Willis of Missouri Inc., had in the past used Kathy Conley Jones as a broker. Conley Jones married Mike Jones in September 1999 and, according to the Joneses, notified the insurance company that she was removing herself from the hotel project on April 1, 1999, a few weeks after the couple's March 15 engagement. After the initial report, Conley Jones was said to be working as an insurance broker for Lambert Airport and for ConnectCare, the city medical program on whose three-person board of directors Mike Jones serves. Jones says Chester Hines, chairman of the ConnectCare board, made those decisions. In the cases of both the airport and ConnectCare, the insurance deals occurred before the couple became engaged.
Jones concedes that in politics, Caesar's wife is often judged harshly: Not only must she be innocent, she must appear above suspicion. "But that's at the point in time she becomes Caesar's wife, not before. They were talking about Caesar's wife, OK?" the deputy mayor says in his defense. Jones says he didn't make any of the decisions about the insurance for ConnectCare or Lambert and that his wife never profited from the convention-hotel project. "When we took our relationship to another level, she withdrew herself from any consideration. We weren't even married. The law doesn't even recognize engagements. But at that level I will agree with you about the analogy of Caesar's wife. Obviously with somebody you're planning to marry you have a different relationship than with somebody you're dating."
As to whether the couple were living together before their engagement, Jones says, "That would come under the category of 'nobody's business.'" He dismisses much of the current criticism as an "ass-backwards compliment," saying he believes the attacks come because he's an effective member of the Harmon administration and is therefore a target. If this has been the strategy, he believes, it has backfired. "This took me from 'I'll be glad when this is over' to 'Well, no, now I ain't ready to go,'" Jones says.
Slay contends that the rumors linking Jones' wife and the hotel insurance were widespread and that many believed Jones' wife was involved in the deal. "It was well known in the industry and throughout politics. I heard it from so many people I got tired of hearing about it. It was something that was flying around for a long time," says Slay, who has called for a "third-party" investigation.
Though Slay stresses that he wasn't making the comparison, when asked to compare the Jones imbroglio with conflicts of interest that surfaced in the administration of former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., Slay recalls that a mayoral aide for Bosley, Tim Person, drew flak when he played a role in awarding an airport contract to Sverdrup Corp. after his wife had done subcontracting work for Sverdrup on a previous, unrelated project: "He got fired for it. It was much more tenuous, if you want to compare them -- and that's not what I'm doing," Slay says.
So, for now, the list of refugees from Room 200 includes Tom Villa, Nancy Farmer, Toby Paone, Julie Stone and Karen Isbell -- and then there's the revolving-door departures of members of the press-liaison staff: Ed Bushmeyer, Monica McFee, Ed Davis and John Boul. But Jones says he's staying in the bunker. Look out for incoming.
SCOOP CITY AND THE CHERRY BOMBER: When a newspaper pats itself on the back, it's best not to overreach. Take the Howard Mechanic piece in the Sunday, April 9, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Mechanic was the Washington University student who fled St. Louis in 1972 after being convicted of tossing a cherry bomb at firefighters when the campus ROTC building burned. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Mechanic bolted, took another name and led another life until he was uncovered in Arizona in February. Mechanic hadn't granted any interviews since his arrest, although several newspapers, including this one, made requests. So when the P-D published, under reporter Paul Hampel's byline, what it called the first interview "Mechanic has given to a newspaper" on April 9, the paper seemed to have scored a good old-fashioned scoop. The story was picked up by other St. Louis media that day, including KMOX (1120 AM). The only problem was, Mechanic's jailhouse interview was first published in the Arizona Republic -- on April 8. What happened? Mechanic lawyer Tom Hoidal says he decided to make his client available to both newspapers at the same session. Unlike Hampel, Republic reporter Dennis Wagner told his readers that the "52-year-old inmate spoke with two reporters." But here's the real kicker: According to Hoidal, neither paper actually scored the first newspaper interview with Mechanic. That distinction goes to the New York Times, which Hoidal apparently didn't tell Hampel or Wagner. "That should be coming out in the New York Times Magazine this coming Sunday," Hoidal says. And one more thing -- Mechanic is 52, not 51, as the P-D stated. No big deal? Maybe not, but why the misleading info on the self-promotion?
AT LEAST THEY WEREN'T HOLDING SOUTH CAROLINA FLAGS: After his senatorial opponent, Gov. Mel Carnahan, was outed for doing a blackface minstrel skit in 1960 at a Rolla Kiwanis social event -- wait, let us ponder for a moment the weirdness of that scene -- U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft tried to downplay the significance of his acceptance of an honorary degree from Bob Jones University, the South Carolina school criticized for its opposition to interracial dating and its attacks on the Roman Catholic Church. But let's face it -- "Bob Jones U." sounds like a bad Jeff Foxworthy joke: "You know you're a redneck when you get a honorary degree from Billy Bob Jones University." Ashcroft has kept a low profile with regard to this peculiar honor. But wait -- here's a snippet from Ashcroft's Christmas card, sent to donors and fellow travelers, giving John's highlights for the year: "Lots of time fund-raising ... commencements -- Evangel U. & Bob Jones U. ... singing senators ... with Janet introduced 165 Howard U. frosh to Senate ... greeted Pope John Paul II in St. L ... At least you have to give Ashcroft points for audacity for putting in the same ellipsis-littered sentence Bob Jones U. and a mention of his wife's teaching at historically black Howard University; Bob Jones and Pope John Paul. Where will the dichotomies end? Well, for Carnahan the weirdness seems to have ended 40 years ago. As for Ashcroft, we'll have to wait until next Christmas.
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