Funky Town

Smokestacks, strip joints and a seriously solid tax base: Welcome to Sauget, Illinois

"I always knew I was going to come back," says Rich Jr. "The second I was done with baseball, I started coming around city hall."

Keenly aware of his son's interest in village governance, in 2001 Big Rich essentially bequeathed his post on the town's board of trustees to Rich Jr. after sixteen years of service. It was then that the die was cast: Rich Jr. quietly assumed the role of mayor-in-waiting while his great uncle Paul, son of Leo, wound down his reign. It was an incubation period that was destined to end prematurely.

Everyone assumed it would be Paul Sauget's health -- he has survived four strokes -- that would get the better of him. Nobody thought this shrewd businessman's carelessness with the finances of a village he cared for like a member of his own family would number his days in the mayor's chair.

Police Chief Pat Delaney once viewed Sauget as a stepping stone. Now he says he'll never leave.
Jennifer Silverberg
Police Chief Pat Delaney once viewed Sauget as a stepping stone. Now he says he'll never leave.
Against a backdrop of East St. Louis' pollution-plagued Rush City neighborhood, environmentalist Kathy Andria regards Sauget with a critical eye
Jennifer Silverberg
Against a backdrop of East St. Louis' pollution-plagued Rush City neighborhood, environmentalist Kathy Andria regards Sauget with a critical eye

But this past October 6, Paul Sauget resigned after the Cahokia-Dupo Journal revealed he'd spent an estimated $130,000 in village funds for personal items since 1997. Since January 2002 the now-ex-mayor used his village-issued American Express gold card to purchase $1,131 worth of lingerie from Victoria's Secret, $1,300 in electronic gizmos at Best Buy in Fairview Heights and $1,833 worth of food and spirits at Carmine's Steakhouse in St. Louis, among other alleged indiscretions. Worse still, Betty Long Wilson, the only person charged with reviewing the ex-mayor's expenses and Sauget's village clerk since 1969, herself allegedly racked up some $18,000 in personal expenses on her village-issued card. (Wilson resigned October 3 and was promptly replaced by the police chief's mother.)

"Everyone knew Paul and didn't question what he did," says Rich Jr., adding, "I think there's a lot of confusion pertaining to expense accounts."

While the former mayor would not comment for this story, he has been quoted as saying he thought an expense account meant he had carte blanche to spend as he pleased. The current mayor seems sympathetic to this explanation, however flimsy it may sound.

"From all indications, we're going to get proper restitution," says Sauget Jr. "If we get restitution, it's a dead issue as far as the village is concerned."

St. Clair County State's Attorney Robert Haida has turned the investigation over to the Illinois State Police, where it has attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and remains ongoing. St. Clair County Board Chairman John Baricevic, who has known Paul Sauget for 35 years, seems to consider the incident an unfortunate hiccup at the tail end of a banner career in public service.

"Nobody can condone any use of public funds for private service," Baricevic starts off by noting. "Setting that aside, Paul took great pride in his city, absolutely wanted it to work and ran a tight ship. It was Paul's way, and if he believed it was the right way, you'd better get onboard. Tough guy, no nonsense -- but it was always the village first. It was almost a paternalistic style of government. Whatever's involved in this investigation, he did an awful lot to keep a small community together."

Fire chief Roger Thornton puts it more succinctly.

"For people who've never known the man or the family," says Thornton -- who has worked for Paul Sauget on a handful of the ex-mayor's private ventures, including small-scale real estate deals, trucking and landfill operations -- "to say they're a bunch of crooks, that's not true."

The New York Yankees lost to the Cardinals in the 1964 World Series, and so John "Vito" Parisi decided to move from his native Bronx to the city by the river. Parisi, then fifteen years old and an orphan, ended up settling in East St. Louis and taking a job across the Mississippi as a bellhop at the Missouri Athletic Club for a dollar an hour.

"I thought just like New York City," reminisces Parisi, now a 54-year-old Sauget police officer, "that east side was just as good as west side."

On a cold, damp Thursday morning, Parisi is guiding the department's lone K-9, Officer Bear, through an obstacle course at Paul Sauget Field on Little Avenue. Across the street is Sauget Field (hold the Paul), a meticulously manicured ballyard with bullpens, a green outfield fence, grass between the baselines and a raised pitcher's mound. So spiffy is the field, in fact, that it served as the minor-league Gateway Grizzlies' home park in 2001, the team's inaugural year. The following year, the ballclub, owned by a group of investors headed by Rich Sauget Sr., moved into a $6.6 million, 5,000-capacity, village-owned ballpark -- complete with two hot tubs behind the right-field fence -- near Sauget's eastern boundary. The team's on-field manager during that 2002 campaign was none other than Rich Sauget Jr., who voluntarily gave way to ex-Cardinal pitcher Danny Cox before the independent Frontier League franchise's 2003 campaign.

His shaved head glistening in the cold December rain, Parisi, a ringer for towel-chewing college basketball coaching legend Jerry Tarkanian, methodically guides his canine partner up a tall white wall on the course, made possible through a grant from Solutia. Officer Bear (short for Barry), is widely regarded as the most accomplished K-9 in a part of the country known as a hotbed of police-pooch proficiency. Although Parisi claims the ten-year-old Belgian Malinois -- who resembles a skinny, mini German shepherd -- has "lost a step" in the past few years, Barry placed ninth in the 2002 K-9 nationals in Florida. The dog routinely dominates bi-state competitions, evidenced by the row of trophies facing the village hall from the front window of the Parisi residence on Falling Springs Road.

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