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.

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.'"

Enough background. Back to how all of this blew up into a major pissing match.

On March 19, Frankie wrote a letter to Joyce, expressing concern about "a regular occurrence for people convicted of armed robbery to be sentenced to probation, serving no jail time." He asked Joyce to forward him the number of people who were convicted of or pleaded guilty to armed robbery but got probation.

The sharpies say this letter was a bit disingenuous, given that he was already talking to Joyce in those skull sessions on crime and she was already telling him the numbers -- a five-year summary of probation granted in 134 of 681 cases of robbery in the first degree and attempted robbery in the first degree, which is the term of art for a robber wielding a firearm. That's a one-in-five ratio, kids.

Regardless, this public document should have been a red flag to the judges that the mayor was eyeing them as fodder for a bully-pulpit sermon on crime, straight from that Old Testament favorite, the Book of Giuliani.

It wasn't.

The shit didn't hit the fan until an early-May story on armed-robbery probations aired by KSDK (Channel 5) pit-bull reporter Mike Owens, famous for his marriage to Alderwoman Lyda Krewson (D-28th Ward) and his ultratight connections to City Hall.

Make no mistake -- Owens chased a story any reporter would track down. And he appears to have used due diligence, double-checking his numbers with Circuit Clerk Mariano Favazza and University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Scott Decker.

But Neill and her colleagues hit the roof, seeing the story as the first torpedo fired at their waterline by City Hall. They saw Owens as an electronic U-boat, following orders from Room 200, ignoring the substance and legitimacy of his report.

They also heard strong rumors that the mayor was about to launch a major crime initiative by blasting them for soft sentences and establishing a court-watch program that would track sentencing patterns and put that information into the hands of everyday folk.

Favazza and Joyce are more or less walking the same pathway with their projects to put public trial records up on the Web so that people can check on crime in their neighborhoods and how cases are handled by the courts -- rank heresy in the minds of several judges, who think it's none of the public's damn business what public servants do on the public dime.

"Change scares people," says Joyce. "My concern is with the sentencing patterns in the city and what one judge refers to as a 'culture of leniency.' I've definitely brought those concerns to the mayor."

Whatever one thinks of Frankie, Favazza, Joyce and their political motivations, any attempt to put public records where the public can get them deserves loud and sustained applause.

Truth-telling is a rare commodity in St. Louis, and even a baby step in this direction is welcome -- something Rhode and his City Hall betters might remember the next time they give the moral equivalent to the "dog ate my homework" excuse on the Speedloader's request for a public record, a letter from a political honcho such as Jim Holloran.

Joyce might also give serious thought to her own hypocrisy. While making big noise about the public's right to know what's going on in the courts their tax dollars pay for, she's stonewalling the Speedloader on the Holloran letter and other public documents. At least she's bothered to gin up some clever, if hollow, legal arguments, passing the buck to Attorney General Jay Nixon for a ruling -- far better than City Hall's apparent panic run to the shredder.

Of course, none of this sordid nobility was on the judicial radar screen when the Owens story hit. The judges saw it strictly in a political light and marshaled their forces to fire back, early and often.

"As presiding judge, it's part of my role when I hear unfair criticism of the judiciary to talk to lawyers in town," Neill says. "There were rumors going around that there was going to be an attack on the judges' being soft on crime, a concerted effort from the executive branch."

By "executive branch," Neill means Frankie the Saint and the South Side Shark herself, Jennifer Joyce. In the wake of the Owens story, Neill says, she learned that Joyce had sent similar information to the mayor's office and learned of the ongoing strategy sessions on crime being attended by Mokwa, Joyce, Slay and the mayor's point man on this issue, Ribbing.

Neill says statistics are misleading and don't account for the mitigating circumstances surrounding each case a judge faces. She also notes that judges are hogtied, barred by law from talking about their work. To get someone to do what the judges could not, she talked to Holloran and about twenty other luminaries of the state and local bars but claims she didn't ask anyone to write anything.

Didn't have to. Within a week, Holloran fired off his fiery letter -- just a few days after attorney Paul Passanante says he introduced Holloran to Joyce at the backbar of McGurk's during a fundraiser.

The Shark -- who sports a 98 percent overall conviction rate and a 70 percent rate in jury trials -- says she met with Holloran after receiving his letter. She shrugs it off and gives him a Casablanca defense -- like Humphrey Bogart musing about the healthful waters of the North African desert, Holloran was misinformed, she says.

"The Holloran letter, it really doesn't mean anything," she says. "I like Jim ... but it's not a big fish in my pond right now."

And whereas some see Joyce as getting caught in the crossfire, the sharpies say the South Side Shark is walking point for Frankie the Saint's assault on crime.

"She's not in the middle -- she's right by Slay's side on this one," says one insider. "If he wants her to amp it up, she'll amp it up."

Two weeks after the Holloran blast, Passanante fired off his own letter, resigning his position as a special assistant circuit attorney and criticizing Frankie and the Shark for attacking the judges. A self-described "bit player" in this firefight, Passanante, who briefly appeared in the race Joyce eventually won, says he tried to play peacemaker in this fight, at Joyce's request.

But after meeting with Neill and having a "long and loud telephone conversation with Jim Holloran," Passanante realized that Swiss-style fence-sitting wasn't an option.

"The Court is convinced that the Circuit Attorney is once again attempting to improperly exert control over the sentencing of defendants," Passanante wrote in his May 29 letter to Joyce. "The Mayor's apparent attempt to blame the City's crime problems on the Circuit Court is unfair.... The Mayor may see some political advantages to this now but in the long run, he'll pay a heavy price for such tactics.... Your office is increasingly viewed as disrespectful and antagonistic toward the Court. I cannot be a part of that."

Sandwiched between this two-letter barrage were ongoing negotiations between the court and the mayor's office over a thorny problem contributing to overcrowding at the city workhouse -- the slow processing of parole-violation cases, resulting in a backlog of about 132 prisoners who should have been quickly sent to state prisons instead of being allowed to lounge around on the city's nickel.

There was also a request from the judges that Slay rein in Favazza on a budget request before the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, the latest clash in a long-running war between the circuit-court clerk and the judges. Most of Favazza's workers are state employees and his office got smacked hard in the draconian slicing that accompanied the state budget crisis, a situation exacerbated by the judges' ability to force him to bear the brunt of those cuts -- the elimination of 25 full-time employees.

"The judges found themselves in a two-front war against Mariano on one side and the mayor and the circuit attorney on the other," says one insider.

The ongoing letter war threatened to destroy both instances of back-scratching between City Hall and the judges and undermine Slay's attempts to smooth the feathers of Holloran, Neill and her court. Viewing Passanante's letter as a resumption of judicial hostilities, Slay's chief of staff, Jeff "Crash" Rainford, called up Circuit Court Judge Jack Garvey, a former alderman, and asked him to help broker a peace.

A thankless task for Garvey, say the sharpies, even though everybody appears to be making nice right now. They note that Neill suffers from a classic case of Irish Alzheimer's -- she forgets everything except whom she's pissed at. And the South Side Shark shows no signs of backing down; she's pushing forward with plans to put sentences and prosecutorial recommendations on a Web site slated for an August 6 debut. Unlike Favazza, Joyce's effort is well beyond the reach of the judges.

Listen to the Shark: "It is not my role, necessarily, to work hand in glove with the judges. I'm an advocate and represent the crime victims of this city. People need to understand what's going on in the courts. The system should be accountable to the victims of the crimes.

"The sentences in the city of St. Louis are significantly disparate to the sentences people receive in surrounding jurisdictions for similar crimes and under similar circumstances."

Hmm -- sounds like a sermon. It's got rhythm and catchy phrases, and you can pray to it.

Maybe Frankie ought to surrender his pulpit to the South Side Shark.

More by Jim Nesbitt

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