Judging Mariano

The circuit clerk and the city's judges square off on the public's right to know. The clerk and the public are losing.

He was concerned about the blind eye the bench turned toward the financial situation in the courthouse.

The judges had asked for a private audit, but after they received the findings, St. Vrain wrote, "no action was taken by the judges in response to the critical findings.... The lack of judicial response is curious given the negative findings."

Although St. Vrain acknowledged that financial supervision fell under the clerk's management, he wrote, "the judges bear some responsibility in this important area of fiscal oversight for the Circuit Court."

Jennifer Silverberg
Circuit Court Clerk Mariano Favazza: "I look in the mirror and ask myself if I'm doing things for the right reasons."
Jennifer Silverberg
Circuit Court Clerk Mariano Favazza: "I look in the mirror and ask myself if I'm doing things for the right reasons."

He concluded that the judges suffered from a "Pontius Pilate syndrome."

No longer.

They're not washing their hands of courthouse problems, and they're not turning the other cheek.

To them, Favazza is a problem -- and they're taking steps to get rid of him.

Favazza sits at his desk, smiling anxiously; behind him hangs a portrait of Abe Lincoln. Across the room is his original rejection letter from SLU, now framed and placed strategically next to his law license. Favazza's face is set off by dark curly hair, highlighted by flecks of gray. Now 49, he has a raspy voice and barely takes a breath between sentences.

It's tough to get in a word edgewise. And he's here to tell you he's doing a great job.

Unlike other clerks, he claims, he doesn't spend public money on himself. He even uses Thompson's office furniture -- well, everything except her chair. He's a big man -- about 300 pounds when he took office, although he's shed a lot of weight since -- and the first chair broke. The office paid for the replacement.

When he won the office, some were worried that he was going to be just another politician. His wife is a cousin to Tony Ribaudo, the man reviled by many as the stalking-horse candidate in the 1993 mayoral race. Ribaudo's candidacy split the city's white voters and paved the way for Bosley's election. As a lawyer, Favazza defended Ribaudo in a defamation case filed by Ald. Tom Bauer (D-24th Ward). The case stemmed from a hotly contested state-representative race in 1994.

But Favazza, who is paid $100,000 a year, made good on some of his promises.

His first official act was to get rid of the Buick Park Avenue driven by Thompson. It was a campaign promise he made. He drives his own car, he says, but adds that he does claim mileage when he drives to Jefferson City on official business.

During the campaign, Favazza criticized Thompson's city-paid cell-phone bills. Favazza uses his own cell phone and personally picks up the tab.

Favazza will also tell you about renegotiating leases and the interest rates the clerk's office receives from the bank. As the caretaker of several million dollars, the office earns interest, which Favazza turns over to the city. He says that in the past two years alone, he has turned $900,000 over to City Hall.

After discovering court documents from the Dred Scott case in a vault, he enlisted the help of the state archivist in restoring them, went to area businesses begging for financial donations to help advance the project and put the papers on public display. He did the same for the lawsuits filed by local merchants against explorers Lewis and Clark after the federal government failed to pay for the goods used on the historic expedition west.

Working with St. Louis County and REJIS, he helped automate arrest warrants. Now, instead of waiting several days or weeks before learning of arrest warrants, patrol officers find out within hours.

Evictions take days instead of weeks, and adult-abuse applications can be made 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Recently Favazza used his Web site in an attempt to get rid of $400,000 of collected child-support checks in the office's accounts that hadn't been disbursed because the recipient parent couldn't be located. He listed the names of people who were owed money, and two months later about $300,000 had been paid out.

And to combat the inherently weak financial controls, Favazza hired the auditor who investigated the clerk's office in 1998 as the finance director and also brought in an auditor from the comptroller's office as deputy finance director.

But there have also been battles. Many battles.

According to St. Vrain, when Favazza took over as circuit clerk, he suspected that there was some funny business going on involving money and the Criminal Division. To head off any possible scandal, Favazza transferred all of the courtroom deputies. The deputies are employed by the clerk, not the judges.

But, as St. Vrain explains, "the judges basically live or die by the competency or incompetence of those who serve them as courtroom deputies.

"If they have a fairly competent courtroom deputy, they can better manage their docket and stay on top of their caseload. If they have somebody who is not committed to working with them, it can just cripple you for the time you are in a given division."

Favazza didn't consult the judges; he just acted. The result was courtroom chaos.

His unilateral decisions, especially big ones that directly affect the bench, have fueled resentment.

"I think it is fair to say that there has been a strained relationship between the clerk's office and the court for a long time because the clerk is independently elected," says David, the assistant presiding judge.

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