Gentry Trotter Gets Burned

Maybe he needs a public-relations consultant

Jan 31, 2001 at 4:00 am
Gentry Trotter can take care of himself, and usually he can take care of the media, but these last few weeks, things haven't worked out so well. He was one of the principals mentioned in a page 1 banner-headline article in the Sunday, Jan. 7, Post-Dispatch about the dysfunctional City Living Foundation. He made headlines later that week in regard to threats he allegedly made to KMOX (1120 AM), and then, as a result of all that hubbub, he lost his lucrative public-relations contract with Lambert International Airport.

A lesser man would crawl off the canvas, retreating somewhere to lick his wounds. But not Gentry. He's more than willing to strike back at this hamlet's version of Radio Moscow and Pravda. Mr. Trotter thinks he's been treated unfairly. He's only begun to fight. Or sue.

Trotter's travail began as more stories percolated into print about the City Living Foundation, the nonprofit corporation formed in 1995, criticized in the media as early as 1999 for not doing anything and disbanded in September 2000. The defunct group was the topic of the most recent Carolyn Tuft-written Post-Dispatch opus, chronicling the long-ineffective history of the foundation, which received $272,000 in city funds but never produced any ads. Trotter received $19,588 of that amount. For starters, Trotter described Tuft's piece as merely a rehash of previous stories. "It was a regurgitation," Trotter says. "All it was was a chronology. They could have hired a librarian to type it up in chronological order."

A meeting with the Post-Dispatch editorial board that week didn't help matters. Trotter and Ed Finkelstein -- both City Living board members who also did public-relations consulting work for the foundation -- sat down with the Post brain trust. According to Trotter, much of the time was spent with Finkelstein and Tuft, arguing, and little or no progress was made. "I felt like I was talking to the Politburo. I'm serious. I thought I was somewhere in old Russia or China now, some Politburo," says Trotter. "The Post-Dispatch, the "Communist Gazette,' they decide what's good for you, who gets the castor oil and who gets the enema. That's what they do. They make those decisions. In this case, it was "Hey, Gentry's ass is up next.'"

But after haggling over interpretations in the article, Trotter figured some perceptions did improve. "We went from being thieves to just being dumb. That's progress. Dumb people don't get indicted, just thieves," he says.

But things got worse on the airwaves. The story was a topic on KMOX; Morning Meeting hosts Charles Brennan and McGraw Milhaven talked up the story on two days, and Trotter called in to the show on Tuesday, Jan. 9. "So if you were driving down the street listening, you'd think, "That Gentry Trotter's an asshole, he's incompetent and he represents all these other people, too," says Trotter. "I was nailed." On Thursday, Jan. 11, Trotter and Finkelstein were guests.

Trotter took offense at how Brennan handled the issue on the first day and called station manager Karen Carroll, who was on vacation. The voice-mail transcript of Trotter's message to Carroll was read on Thursday's show and repeated in Friday's Post. The message included the sentence "I can't put any money on the air now for the airport," suggesting that as a result of the on-air discussion of the City Living story, Trotter would not buy KMOX airtime for the airport. Trotter claims this is nonsense because the airport didn't have any ads on the station and didn't plan to run any.

"People pull advertising just for farting," Trotter says. "Everybody knows in the industry if I were a white advertising agency, I could pick up the phone for whatever reason and cancel ads because it's done every day with city money, federal money, government money, Mama's money and anybody's money. And I didn't cancel any ads."

But by then, it was too late. Politics entered the picture when mayoral candidate and Aldermanic President Francis G. Slay demanded that the airport cancel Trotter's contract. Slay accused Trotter of using his position with the airport to advance a personal agenda at KMOX. It probably didn't help that Trotter is a campaign donor and supporter of Mayor Clarence Harmon. "All of a sudden, we got caught up in a political whirlwind. I can understand the whirlwind, but you don't say somebody's guilty and hang them without giving them a hearing. You owe people a hearing," says Trotter, who learned of the cancellation of his airport contract through the media. "We're asking the Airport Commission to hear our side. What they decided to do was based on what Slay said -- "Hang 'em high, and hang 'em often.'"

The morphing of the City Living fiasco into the dissolution of Trotter's airport contract took place during the same week as the initial John Ashcroft attorney-general hearings. As a Republican fundraiser who defected from Ashcroft's camp during the Ronnie White flap, Trotter was getting calls from both sides of the issue. The national media were on the phone, trying to mine data about Ashcroft. "This was going on while I was being lynched about the airport," says Trotter. "I'm being screwed over by a bunch of Republicans and lynched by Democrats. Boy, what a week. That will drive you to someone like Ross Perot."

Trotter plans legal action against KMOX for tampering with his clients, and he's asked for corrections and clarifications from the Post. He thinks airport director Leonard Griggs violated sunshine laws by calling Airport Commission members to lobby for Trotter's dismissal, and he hopes to plead his case at the February Airport Commission meeting. Trotter vows to fight on.

"Everything's quiet now," Trotter says. "You don't hear anything about City Living now. Everybody's hunky-dory, and the black man got screwed."

It's Ralph Nader! It's Clarence Darrow! No, it's Rob Lee! Apparently Lee, whose consumer struggles with Bo Beuckman Ford ["Short Cuts," RFT, Dec. 6, 2000] got him coverage on KMOV-TV (Channel 4) and two articles in the crusading weekly you are now reading, also has legal skills.

Beuckman took Lee to court to get a restraining order to keep him from demonstrating in front of the Ford dealership, but the dealership's expensive Thompson Coburn lawyer was no match for Lee, who defended himself. The court ruled in favor of Lee, allowing him to continue his picketing in front of the West County dealer as long as he stayed off his property and didn't resort to allegations about Beuckman's breaking any laws. Saying "BO RIPPED US OFF!" apparently is okeedokee.