Crime Story

Ghost letter from a powerbroker teaches Slay the perils of using the bully pulpit

When you're a constitutionally challenged mayor who doesn't control the courts and has only partial control of the city's police force, it's tough to launch an all-out assault on crime, no matter how much the attack is warranted.

The only weapon you can really count on is your stature as the city's titular leader, what Teddy Roosevelt famously called the bully pulpit. In recent weeks, Mayor Francis Slay has learned the limitations and pitfalls of using that rhetorical perch to advance a laudable cause -- shining a powerful spotlight on lenient sentencing patterns for armed robbers standing in the dock of the St. Louis Circuit Courts.

In fact, Frankie the Saint got his hard-knocks schooling before ever fully stepping up to deliver his sermon and got his fellow South Sider, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, badly singed in the process, raising her Irish ire.

Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce
Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce

The crack across Frankie's knuckles? A flamethrowing letter from powerful trial attorney Jim Holloran, a Democratic rainmaker and the man whose ring you kiss if you want to ever be a circuit judge in this town.

Sources say this ghostly mid-May correspondence to Slay, a public record that City Hall spokespup Ed Rhode claims was tossed away like an unsolicited screed from Kiel Opera House conspiracy theorist Ed Golterman, delivered a splintery message:

If you and Joyce come after the judges for lenient sentences, the judges and their powerful allies will hit back at her conviction record. It's nasty stuff, say the sources, backed up by the implicit threat of Holloran's withholding his considerable fundraising powers from Slay's and Joyce's re-election campaigns.

"He's famous for this," says one source of Holloran. "He just rips people."

The lesson learned? You can bring down the fire and brimstone from the bully pulpit -- in this case, the circuit-court judges of Division 22 and what one judge has called a "culture of leniency" on giving probation to serious criminals -- but your target can always fire back, with extreme vehemence.

First, some background, courtesy of several knowledgeable insiders:

The sharpies say Frankie the Saint wanted to launch major initiatives on crime and education after helping the Cardinals win state money for a new stadium and securing state funding for another pet project, the Old Post Office renovation. He wanted to do it even earlier, they say, but the infamous escapes from the city workhouse derailed his timing -- hard to talk about putting more criminals in jail when you can't keep hold of the ones already there.

With state funding for the stadium a dead issue and serious tax questions dogging the Old Post Office, moving forward on crime and education became more imperative. Frankie continues to find himself in dire need of action on a substantive issue to build that mayoral track record he still doesn't have.

At neighborhood meeting after neighborhood meeting, Frankie and his aides were getting savaged on crime: Why was this armed robber out on probation? Why is this convicted dope dealer walking the street? And for more than a year, Frankie has huddled up in crime strategy sessions with Police Chief Joe Mokwa, Joyce and Mark Ribbing, a Slay aide who once served as a speechwriter for former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the former federal prosecutor who effectively used his own bully pulpit for an all-out war on those he saw as soft on crime.

Although the city's overall crime figures are down, this is an important issue for the mayor of a dying city, desperate to stanch the outflow of residents to the suburbs and convince downtown loft dwellers and veteran residents of in-town neighborhoods that it's safe to live inside the city limits.

This is a chance for Frankie the Saint to show some brass, be like Rudy and, while doing the right thing, score some political points by stinging the judges. It's also a prime chance to get on the right side of a thorny issue before crimes rates increase again, as they inevitably will -- oh, just about the time Frankie has to run for re-election.

"If you're the mayor, where you don't want to be is on the wrong side of the crime issue when those rates rise again -- and they will," says one former city official.

Unfortunately, good intentions and savvy political instincts are often undermined by piss-poor execution. And on this all-important issue, Frankie's allies and aides made some major miscues, forcing the mayor onto the defensive -- meaning he had to make nice with judiciary folk such as Margaret Neill, the presiding circuit-court judge, and Holloran, who is now returning the favor and doesn't want his asbestos-coated letter to see the naked light of print.

"I stand foursquare behind the mayor," Holloran says. "I like the mayor. I support the mayor.... I wanted to get something in front of the mayor before he made a decision. I wanted to get something in front of the mayor that gives the view of some of the attorneys in town.... 'So long as you're asking some questions, Mayor, we think these judges are doing a good job and as you're doing an assessment, here's something for you to consider.... Just don't take the prosecutor's word for it -- talk to everybody.'"

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