I think I just had a Steve Stenger flashback.
Ah, for that golden age of St. Louis County government scandal, when a hardly working journalist like me would have something interesting to talk or write about weekly. Do you remember this story?
“The county executive received a $15,000 PAC campaign contribution from a city law firm months after it was awarded a no-bid contract by the county executive’s handpicked county attorney. The firm was enlisted to investigate conduct of a St. Louis County Council ally who had been accused of sexual harassment by a female employee. The woman was paid $60,000, despite the county’s determination that the councilman broke no policies or laws. All parties signed non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and declined further comment.”
Pretty scandalous, eh? But if you remember this as a Stenger scandal, you are mistaken. It reads like something Stenger might have done, but he fittingly resides in federal prison and not in this episode. This is today’s news, albeit only partially reported until now.
The campaign money recipient here is Democratic County Executive Sam Page, the man who helped lead the charge against Stenger and who proclaimed, “We’ve made it clear that pay-to-play politics is dead forever in St. Louis County,” after becoming county executive last year. The Page ally on the hot seat is south county Republican Councilman Ernie Trakas, who despite party differences, had supported him on most matters.
After Trakas was accused of sexual harassment by a former aide last summer, County Counselor Beth Orwick rightly decided her office faced a conflict of interest given its potential obligation to defend Trakas. She enlisted Thompson Coburn, a top downtown law firm, to investigate the allegations. Orwick had been selected by Page in July.
All of that was prim and proper. So was the fact that Thompson Coburn LLC chose on February 18 to donate $15,000 to the Page PAC. This wasn’t chump change: The donation is tied for the fourth-largest received by Page so far in the campaign and is dramatically larger than that of any other law firm.
The PAC is a perfectly legal vehicle for candidates like Page to circumvent the $2,600 campaign-donation limits enacted through Charter Amendment 1 in November 2018. But Page had hailed the amendment’s passage by a 74 percent margin as “another milestone in the County Council’s efforts to rein in an out-of-control county executive.” After riding that victory lap, it takes some real chutzpah for Page to rake in hundreds of thousands through his PAC, mostly in amounts exceeding the limits he had championed.
Nothing to see here, unless you enjoy viewing irony. Just because a politician portrays himself as too pious to descend into the mud of the campaign finance swamp doesn’t mean he’s not entitled to have a little fun rolling around in it on occasion.
Technically, Thompson Coburn giving $15,000 to Page after getting business from his administration is not “pay-to-play.” It might meet the less commonly cited standard of “play-then-pay,” or perhaps it’s nothing other than total coincidence.
The county hasn’t disclosed what the law firm was paid. At Page’s first news conference last April he promised new levels of “accountability, transparency and professionalism,” by which he meant to say, “it’s apparent that you’ll need to proffer transformational ability to hold us to account.”
I’ll grant you there’s not a trace of criminality in any of this, but that doesn’t mean a fellow can’t long for the days when it was Stenger time and the writing was easy.
So, let’s hear it for Ernie Trakas.
From the day he first sought office in 2016 running for – yes – Stenger’s old council seat, Trakas was news waiting to happen. A July 22, 2016, St. Louis Post-Dispatch questionnaire asked for three reasons candidates were running. Ernie’s answer: 1) to give constituents a strong voice 2) to prevent a city-county merger from happening and 3) to keep Metrolink from ever reaching his South County district.
Sure, whistling numbers two and three might make your dog howl a bit, but it signaled good stories were coming when Trakas won by a razor’s edge margin. Less than a month into the first office he ever held, he tried to impede the Cliff Cave Park Trail, a key cog of the Great Rivers Greenway’s master plan, basically a motherhood Mother Nature issue.“They wanted to introduce it, I said no dice,” Trakas told an audience, according to The Call newspaper.
This unremarkable man had remarkable media potential. Shortly thereafter, Trakas caved on Cliff Cave, but only up to a point. By May 2018, when a two-mile bike trail and a stunning Mississippi River overlook were completed, Trakas boycotted the ribbon cutting on principle.
Along the way, Trakas fired his first assistant, Carmen Wilkerson, former mayor of St. George. She claimed he had forced her to torment the owners of a Bosnian Muslim cemetery with all manner of nonsense and that when asked if he would meet with the funeral director, Trakas said “No, I’m not meeting with any Muslims.” He called this “an absolute falsehood.”
A recall effort ensued, which Trakas survived. But the man was established as a news machine. He also became known as a man prone to outbursts and attacks. That’s good.
Last August, Trakas fired another assistant, Annette Read, and she accused him of sexual harassment. Orwick enlisted Thompson Coburn to investigate the charge. Said Trakas, "I categorically deny every piece of it, and I'm confident that when the investigation is concluded, I will be exonerated.”
On November 14, 2019, Thompson Coburn concluded that Trakas has violated no county policy or applicable laws, and the Post-Dispatch headline proclaimed “Trakas cleared of misconduct.” Trakas beamed, “I am happy that the result of the independent investigation confirmed that I did not do anything wrong.”
The firm’s report “did identify instances in which employees, irrespective of gender, believed that the tone of [Trakas’] communications was harsh. Although you are an elected official, we encourage you to maintain a professional environment and a respectful workplace for all County employees.”
That was that, until last week. The Post-Dispatch reported on May 12 that the transparent Page administration had somehow forgotten to mention that the NDAs signed by Trakas and Read had come at a cost of $60,000 to the taxpayers.
If Trakas is telling the truth and did nothing wrong, why was Mr. Taxpayer Watchdog willing to waste $60,000 of tax money to settle a false charge? He doesn’t work for Orwick or Page. He didn’t have to sign the NDA.
If he did something wrong, he’s a liar. Either way, he should resign.
From a media standpoint, even more damage was done by the NDAs. This was a catfight between two die-hard Trumpers (she has more than 10,000 Twitter followers). Can you just imagine these right-wingers duking it out over sexual harassment? This is like having WWE preempted by Dora The Explorer. Sad.
There was one other angle I couldn’t understand: Why were the council’s four Democrats not uttering a word of indignation about news of the settlement, which apparently caught them off guard, even in Page’s world of transparency?
Sunday night, council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy broke the silence in response to my inquiry:
“I was alarmed and concerned to learn just last week that St. Louis County must pay out a $60,000 settlement in response to a sexual harassment complaint against Councilman Trakas by his former assistant,” Clancy wrote. “I thought this case was over, but now unfortunately taxpayers are on the hook for a Council member's bad behavior. Councilman Trakas should consider paying this settlement with his own money so that taxpayers don't have to foot the bill.
“Further, it's not lost on me that Councilman Trakas currently sits as the Chair of the Ethics Committee,” Clancy said. “I am currently assessing the future of this Committee, including its leadership.”
That doesn’t sound promising for Trakas. Still, it's hard to imagine a world in which Ernie Trakas isn’t in charge of ethics for the County Council. He’s such a good fit with the transparent Page administration, the one that hides hush-money payments from the public and council alike, and which keeps that PAC handy for the big hitters.
I’m still having flashbacks.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).