Thursday, May 2, 2019

For Charlie Dooley, Steve Stenger's Fall Offers a Heaping Dose of Karma

Posted By on Thu, May 2, 2019 at 8:19 AM

click to enlarge Charlie Dooley. - FLICKR/USDAGOV

For former St. Louis County executive Charlie Dooley, the indictment and resignation of Steve Stenger, who defeated Dooley in his 2014 quest for reelection, presents a sharp example of history that doesn't quite repeat itself, but definitely seems to rhyme.

In an interview Tuesday, Dooley doesn't dance on the grave of his former opponent. But the irony doesn't escape him.

"My administration was never indicted, we were never subpoenaed," Dooley says. "Unfortunately, the things that [Stenger] said that my administration did, apparently he did those things."



It's a fair point. In his final term as executive, Dooley faced allegations of the same sort of pay-to-play corruption that's now taken down Stenger. Back in 2010, it was KMOX reporting the FBI had launched "a probe" into connections between Dooley's campaign fundraising and county contracts (the FBI itself contested KMOX's report). Then, a year later, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch nailed Dooley for hiring the son of his campaign manager for a cushy $70,000 position — what appeared to be a blatant example of patronage.

Suggestions of "corruption" dogged Dooley into the 2014 Democratic primary, where Stenger and allies (including then-prosecuting attorney Bob McCulloch) cast Dooley's administration as a system rotting from the top. The smears worked. Dooley lost the primary to Stenger in a landslide.

But more than three years later, it is Stenger who's been exposed for corruption — and not just the intimation of it. In a 44-page indictment unsealed Monday, federal investigators charged Stenger with three counts of honest services bribery and mail fraud. In response, Stenger resigned.

But is Dooley bitter? Not at all, he insists.

"I'm not going to worry about the past anymore," he says. "The things that the Post said about me, what other people were saying about my administration, it was just horrible. But I don't have to be vindicated, because it was just not true. A lot of people assumed it was true."

Indeed, during the 2014 Democratic primary, reporting by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch effectively stocked Stenger's campaign arsenal with damaging ammunition. Along with stories authored by beat reporters, the paper's editorial board came down hard on Dooley, endorsing Stenger and writing that Dooley had squandered voters' trust while triggering "one fouled-up mess after another."

The Post's 2014 endorsement noted that Stenger, then a county councilman, was running as an "anti-Dooley," a "lesser-known quantity" without the political baggage of his opponent.


The same could not be said four years later, when, after Stenger defeated primary opponent Mark Mantovani, the Post's editorial board "reluctantly" endorsed Stenger for a second term as county executive. By then the paper's reporters had already documented the pay-for-play scheme that, this week, finally caught up to Stenger and ended his political career.

While Dooley considers the Post's 2014 reporting on his administration to be "horrible," he claims he was subsequently contacted by individual employees at the newspaper (whom he declines to name) who admitted to him that the paper had "made a mistake with me, and they apologized for it."

"It's even hard for the newspaper people to figure it out sometimes," Dooley adds, noting that while the red flags around Stenger appear obvious now, the truth took work to unravel.

"If reporters can't figure it out," he says, "can you imagine what average guy or woman thinks? That's why it's so important to have the free press and journalists to do their work and do it diligently. Investigative reporting does make a difference, and enough of it wasn't done."

In light of Stenger's fall, the Post is now taking heat (most stridently from the St. Louis American) for its previous coverage of Dooley and the extent to which its coverage helped elect Stenger. The Post can tout the separation between editorial and news-reporting divisions, but that distinction is isn't calming the critics who watched Dooley's Post-assisted fall.


Lending fuel to the paper's critics is the fact that much of the reporting on Dooley, including that 2011 scoop on Dooley hiring the son of a campaign supporter, was authored by Post reporter Paul Hampel. In fact, Hampel's work was so damaging to Dooley that when then-RFT managing editor Chad Garrison wrote about the scandal, he suggested Dooley go the easy route and hire Hampel to a cushy job with a six-figure salary.

Garrison must have been feeling especially prophetic, because his suggestion came true — except it was Stenger who, after beating Dooley, hired Hampel as a policy adviser. (Garrison also missed the salary mark, as Hampel is currently making only about $77,000.)

Needless to say, many haven't forgotten Hampel's role in Dooley's downfall and subsequent skip to the Stenger administration.


But if the Post is seeking penance, it makes a solid case in the aggressive coverage of Stenger that followed his election as county executive. Tony Messenger, who chaired the newspaper's editorial board when it endorsed Stenger in 2014, turned columnist in 2015 and doggedly followed the money wherever it led, from Stenger's use of an obscure fire district PAC to sidestep ethics laws to the connections tying Stenger to Montel Williams (yes, the one on TV) and a bogus effort to rehabilitate the county's image after the Ferguson protests.

Meanwhile, the paper's reporters (notably Jeremy Kohler and Jacob Barker) swung their investigative hammers again and again, critically undermining Stenger's claim that moving county offices to an old mall would save money (it didn't) and further exposing the connections between the executive's campaign donors and the suspicious awarding of county contracts.

In fact, when the indictment against Stenger arrived this week, it read largely like a highlight reel of Post reportage — with the added substance of wire-tapped conversations and text messages showing Stenger begging his cronies to stop talking to the "fucking press."

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Now that the indictment has been made public, Dooley wants to see what else the feds have, and he expects it to be quite a lot. The indictment, he suggests, "is just the tip of the iceberg of the things that went astray" under Stenger.

And with the council-appointed Sam Page taking the helm as executive, Dooley says that he hopes the county can heal, even as its residents are likely to learn even more about what Stenger (and his donors) were up to behind the scenes. Still, with Stenger gone, Dooley believes the county can move forward.

That isn't to say there's a comeback in the works for Dooley — "I have no intent of getting back in county government," he says. "I wish Sam Page the best of luck."


Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at
@D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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