The mayor of tony Creve Coeur and her husband found a novel way of handling political disputes -- they sue critics

Later that month, Bob O'Connor, a former president of the Creve Coeur/Olivette Chamber of Commerce, sent the mayor a letter requesting an investigation into Pass' alleged conflict of interest. When the mayor refused, O'Connor showed up at a council meeting to request an investigation of the mayor, accusing Mandel of failing to do her duty. And the Chamber added fuel to the fire when its executive vice president, Vi Smith, published excerpts of O'Connor's and Rhoades' letters in a citywide newsletter.

Pass fought back -- and she had some arguments on her side. Back in 1991, a similar question of conflict had come up when she served on a community-center committee at the same time her husband's law firm represented the city in a boundary dispute with St. Louis County. The city's ethics commission, at the time, absolved Pass of any conflict -- and Pass argued that the same advisory opinion applied this time around.

Pass also noted that she'd stepped down from a consultant-selection committee in late 1999, when she discovered that the Stolar Partnership was going to be part of a team trying to get the business. Once the Stolar Partnership was selected and Mayor Mandel asked her to serve on the new committee, Pass went to the city attorney and asked whether it would be a conflict. He said no. She also looked to a different section of the Creve Coeur code that made it a conflict of interest if her husband owned 10 percent or more of the firm. He didn't, so she believed she wasn't violating the code.

Creve Coeur Mayor Annette Mandel says she's been the target of "a witch hunt."
Jennifer Silverberg
Creve Coeur Mayor Annette Mandel says she's been the target of "a witch hunt."
Councilwoman Laura Bryant's persistent questions about alleged conflicts launched the current fight and made her a defendant.
Jennifer Silverberg
Councilwoman Laura Bryant's persistent questions about alleged conflicts launched the current fight and made her a defendant.

And after the state ethics commission was asked whether Pass had violated any state conflict-of-interest laws, it "voted to take no further action on this complaint and to close our file."

The mayor stuck with her appointee. The city's ethics commission dodged the specific question of whether Pass had violated the code. And the City Council voted 5-1, with two abstentions, to exonerate Pass. Bryant voted against the motion; Pass and another councilman abstained.

But the dissidents weren't finished.

On April 22, O'Connor, the former Chamber president, filed a writ of mandamus against the city, asking a St. Louis County Circuit Court to order the City Council to remove Pass from office. The writ was dismissed in September.

But O'Connor's letter accusing the mayor of violating her official duties, and his suit, pushed Pass and Mayor Mandel over the edge.

On May 2, they sued their critics. Named in the lawsuits: Councilwoman Bryant and her husband, Keith Prokop; O'Connor and Smith, the two Chamber of Commerce leaders; and Johnston and Rhoades, who had pushed for a Creve Coeur Ethics Commission investigation.

Annette Mandel fed her "letter to the citizens of Creve Coeur" into the city's fax machine. But it spit copies out in newsrooms, not living rooms. In the letter, the mayor explained her reasons for suing.

"I refuse to allow a handful of mean-spirited destructionists to impugn my character, slander and libel me, and tarnish the accomplishments of the last ten years."

The expenses of her "personal" lawsuit would be borne by the Mandel family.

On May 3, Post-Dispatch columnist Jerry Berger, a resident of Creve Coeur, reported on the lawsuit. The spin on the mayor was positive: "With public officials increasingly the legal target of every disgruntled activist with a word processor, Creve Coeur Mayor Annette Kolis Mandel has struck a blow likely to be followed in every government building from St. Louis City Hall to the state Capitol."

The "Berger Bit" was news to Jeanne Rhoades. "I read the Berger column and saw that I was getting sued," she says. "I got served a day or two later."

Some weren't amused that the city's fax machine had been used as a conduit to tip Berger and other media outlets. The mayor agreed to reimburse the city $28 for the use of the fax.

There was another embarrassing gaffe.

Because Laura Bryant says she was asking questions in her role as councilwoman, the city's insurance policy was on the hook for her legal defense. The remaining defendants had their costs covered by homeowners' insurance.

Annette Mandel's core allegation is that by claiming that she breached her official duties and violated the city charter, Bob O'Connor had maliciously defamed her. Other defendants, Mandel claims, conspired with O'Connor to smear her name.

Several defendants say they were just concerned about the same city issue -- and they deny the conspiracy claim. As for Keith Prokop, nobody's sure what he's done to be sued other than remain married to Bryant.

O'Connor defended the case, saying he was merely expressing an opinion, an opinion protected by the First Amendment.

But Mayor Mandel disagrees.

In an interview, the 49-year-old mayor says, "Anybody can question anything, but when you've been told that your interpretation is not correct time and time again, I think that's the point at which those statements are abusive."

And just because she's an elected official doesn't mean she's got put up with being called nasty names, she says: "I think there are other public officials throughout the area that are looking at this to see what the outcome is because it is not right that people have carte blanche to abuse a public official that they don't like."

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