Bill's Bills

The St. Louis school board might have to pony up for the defense in Roberti v. Haas

Jan 21, 2004 at 4:00 am
On January 8, when William V. Roberti announced that he'd hired well-known local attorney Chet Pleban to file a defamation suit on his behalf, the well-paid acting superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools stressed that he was picking his own deep pockets to finance the legal crusade. The former Brooks Brothers CEO is running St. Louis schools as part of a lucrative contract the district signed last year with the New York consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal.

Roberti's adversary, St. Louis school board member Bill Haas, has no pockets. His part-time job as a retail manager at Wal-Mart and his adjunct teaching position at Harris-Stowe State College barely pays his rent, so finding a retainer in his rainy-day jar for a defense lawyer wasn't likely.

The 59-year-old Haas ran afoul of Roberti when he convened a January 7 press conference challenging the closing and sale of magnet elementary school Waring Academy of Basic Instruction, a move he and his fellow board members had okayed only a few months earlier. Flanked by former school board president Bill Purdy and Mary Armstrong, president of the Local 420 teacher's union, Haas asked the U.S. Attorney, the Missouri Attorney General and the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's Office to investigate whether Waring had been improperly shuttered as part of a backroom deal to benefit St. Louis University. SLU bought the school for $1.25 million on November 6 and shortly thereafter announced plans to tear it down to make room for a new basketball arena.

Might the school district's own rainy-day jar cover Haas' legal fees? That's the question the Riverfront Times set out to answer this past Tuesday, January 13.

"Absolutely, absolutely," Purdy said when we gave him a call. "It is my opinion, based on twelve years on the school board, and the last as the president of the school board, that Bill Haas is absolutely, unequivocally, entitled to representation by the school district."

Purdy's view is backed by some precedent. The board covered defense fees back in 2001, when two school board members, Rochell Moore and Amy Hilgemann, sued the board and its then-president, Harold Brewster, alleging violations of Missouri's Sunshine Law. The board retained an outside attorney, and the school district picked up the tab. (When Moore and Hilgemann prevailed, the school district was ordered to pony up for their attorneys' fees as well, under a provision of the Sunshine Law.) Missouri law allows school boards to purchase insurance for their elected officials in order to, as the statute reads, "indemnify the members of the school board, individually, against loss for personal or bodily injury to a person... caused by a negligent act, error or omission of a member while acting within the scope of his office." But the St. Louis school board is self-insured and must pay any legal expenses from its own coffers.

Steven Wright, the Columbia lawyer hired to represent Brewster in 2001 case, is hedging his bets this time around. "My understanding is that the board has always indemnified and defended board members from litigation," he said, then added, "Whether it would in this particular case, I can't tell you."

The board's usual counsel, Ken Brostron, was out of town and unavailable for comment. Haas, though, says he spoke to Brostron about a similar matter back in October, when Roberti threatened to sue for defamation after Haas sent out an e-mail admonishing the interim superintendent to "kiss my ass," and making a lewd sexual reference to Roberti's working relationship with fellow Alvarez & Marsal consultant Karen Marsal. (For more about the e-mail flap, see Shelley Smithson's November 26 cover story, "Knockin' 'Em Dead.")

Haas says he asked Brostron if he'd be entitled to school-district representation if Roberti were to follow through on his threat. As Haas recalls the conversation, Brostron told him that "if what I said was in my position as a board member and about board business, I deserved representation. But that if I went overboard in what I said so that I was found liable for intentional torts, I would have to pay that myself."

We traded January 13 voicemails with Amy Hilgemann, who left a message angrily dismissing the possibility that the school district would be required to defend Haas, whom she referred to as "a community ass." Said Hilgemann: "Mr. Haas is full of shit. He is not acting as a board member; he is acting on his own. Now, you can voice a minority opinion, but you don't go out and make statements that there are deals cut and there's criminals going around cutting deals."

School board president Darnetta Clinkscale was more taciturn when we reached her that same day: "That hasn't come up yet, and so I would be out of order to speak to that," she said.

Perhaps coincidentally, the matter of Haas' defense came up that very night, at an executive session before the board's regular meeting -- though it hadn't been on the agenda the day before.

Though the meeting was closed to the public, Haas was present. He says that after Brostron concluded his presentation on outstanding legal issues, Hilgemann announced that there was one more legal matter to discuss. At that point, confirms the district's spokesman, Glynn Young, Clinkscale ordered everyone except for board members to leave the room, including Brostron and Roberti.

Hilgemann then asked Haas whether he planned to ask the school board to pay his legal fees. Haas tearfully recited the advice he'd received from Brostron back in October and added that he hoped the conflict could be resolved without a suit being filed. Then, he recalls telling them, "I don't think I did anything wrong. My life is a mess and I didn't really need another stressor and I think I did the right thing and I'll play the hand I'm dealt."

School board member Vincent P. Schoemehl Jr. weighed in on the debate, volunteering that he'd spoken with Roberti, who told him Pleban's legal fees would cost up to $100,000. (Schoemehl did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.)

Hilgemann moved that the board decline to pick up Haas' tab; the motion was seconded by board member Robert Archibald. The vote: five to one, with Haas in the minority and Rochell Moore, his frequent ally, abstaining.

"Under the state statute, school-board members are considered in a different light than, say, a city councilperson or a state representative or a governor," Hilgemann argues. "Even though I am a school board member, I legally have no authority to carry out any school board business outside of the confines of the people of the board."

A week before Haas' press conference, Hilgemann says, members of the board warned him he could not publicly make allegations against them or Roberti. "You can't do that as a school-board member. You can do it as a person, and he did it as a person, and therefore he got sued as a person, not as a board member."

Hilgemann could not cite any state law that distinguishes between elected officials in Missouri.

Clinkscale maintains that the "district only will pay for costs when it's directly related to district business." She declined to discuss the case any further, saying, "The lawsuit is between individuals."

On Thursday, January 15, Roberti filed suit in St. Louis Circuit Court, alleging that Haas slandered and defamed him in stating that "[Roberti] and others engaged in a course of conduct that involved collusion with St. Louis University regarding the sale of Waring to the extent that an investigation was necessary by criminal prosecutors." Roberti claims that Haas' statements caused him to "[suffer] public ridicule, personal humiliation and loss of reputation, public confidence, respect, and professional standing within the community." As a result, Roberti alleges, he "may lose business contacts and opportunities due to the cloud placed upon his reputation." He has asked the court to award him actual and punitive damages "in an amount that exceeds $25,000."

Haas could argue that he was acting within the scope of his office and ask the court to order the district to pay for his defense.

In this regard, history might be on his side. In 2002 then-Creve Coeur mayor Annette Mandel, represented by her lawyer-husband Alan Mandel, sued city council member Laura Bryant for libel and defamation. Bryant and several other citizen activists had been highly critical of a committee appointment they believed constituted a conflict of interest. After a citizen requested that the Missouri Ethics Commission investigate one of Mandel's allies on the city council for conflict of interest, the mayor sued. Bryant claimed the suit was a so-called SLAPP (short for "strategic lawsuit against public participation").

And Bryant had the last laugh: A judge eventually threw out the case, and Creve Coeur's insurance covered her attorney's fees after Bryant argued successfully that she was sued while acting in the scope of her office.

Roberti's lawsuit contends that Haas continues to slander the acting superintendent, and asks the court for permission to "supplement the record with additional statements that are made by the Defendant."

Haas says the suit is intended to make him stop asking questions about the sale of Waring School. To which he responds, "Fat fucking chance."