Thank you for joining my chat today. Ask your questions and we'll get to as many of them as we can! While the chat was billed as a discussion about the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for my debtors prison series, I suspect there will be more than one question or two on yesterday's indictment of Steve Stenger. Several questions are lined up and we'll start with those!
There are still a lot of angles to pursue on the debtors prison series. Here are a few: Some judges are still not completely following the Supreme Court's decision. I plan to write about some of those cases soon.
And there is the larger point you make about it being incongruous to jail somebody and then charge them for it. I think that ought to be a battle at the Legislature. I know there are plenty of Republicans and Democrats who are offended by that. I'd like to see the Legislature tackle the very existence of the jail bill.
Many of you are sending congratulations. Thank you very much. Winning the Pulitzer was amazing, and one of the things that most surprised me was how much it meant to all the people around me, family colleagues, and readers. It's a transcendent award, and I share it with St. Louis.
There were multiple people who tipped me, and many of my colleagues, including Jacob Barker and Jeremy Kohler, but going back further to Steve Giegerich and Stephen Deere, as well. But some of the reporting came from publicly available documents and meetings. One of my first columns on Stenger's pay-to-play tendencies came from the donations made by "Givco", an LLC connected to the Glarner brothers. County watchdog Tom Sullivan mentioned those donations in a public county council meeting.
And over the course of my career I've spent a lot of time, maybe too much time, pouring over campaign finance documents. When I started seeing lots of money going from the MACFPD political action committee to Stenger, it didn't take a lot of digging to figure out all the myriad connections between Dave Tilley and Steve Stenger.
Jumping back to debtors prison for a moment, this question is interesting. One of the things i found in the series was that all of the poor people in these counties knew what was going on. Anybody who had been in the Dent County jail or St. Francois County Jail or many others knew that they were being charged and that the court was abusing them. But they didn't have attorneys and they just thought this is the way the system was supposed to be. It was just going on in plain sight, and sometimes they'd complain and nobody would listen. It's why so many of them were so happy to talk to me and tell me their stories. They really were relieved that somebody was listening to them and understood that what was happening to them wasn't right.
There is a Pulitzer Prize ceremony at Columbia University on May 28 in New York. Still working out some of the details, but that's when all the Pulitzer winners receive their prizes. Can't wait. Hoping to take the family for a little vacation in the Big Apple. Would appreciate it if the news would die down so I could take a few days off!
This question of Clean Missouri came up this morning in my regular appearance on McGraw Milhaven's show on KTRS. One of the reasons Stenger was found out was because of public accountability laws, namely the Sunshine Law. As the indictment shows, when Jacob Barker was filing multiple Sunshine Law requests to get the records that helped unravel the John Rallo/Wellston deals, Stenger was internally fighting back. That the Legislature would push back on public accountability laws passed by the voters (Clean Missouri) is ridiculous. They are trying to protect themselves from the same Sunshine Law that helped bring Stenger down. And they are trying to protect the drawing of their legislative districts, as well, which increases extremism in government and increases the likelihood of corruption. I'll be following this story.
I'm going to answer this last question, but first, indulge me in a story it reminded me of. Many years ago in Columbia, MO, I was covering a civil trial. I had written a column about it the day before it started, and during jury voir dire, the defense attorney asked the panelists if they knew who I was. I was sitting in the courtroom and he pointed at me and said: Do you know this man? A bunch of hands went up. Then he asked, if you read his column, do you tend to trust what he says? A bunch of hands went up. They all got kicked off the jury. It's nice to be trusted, so thank you for that comment. Now, to the answer ...
I get my stories from all over the place. I've been covering government in Missouri for more than a decade, and so I tend to have relationships with people who know things who pass them on to me. Sometimes phone calls or email, often a response to a column, telling me a detail that i didn't really know, and then I pursue that. Like in the debtors prison series. One column led to another. When I met Brooke Bergen, (the woman who faced a year in jail for stealing mascara), she introduced me to some of her jail mates on facebook, and we became friends and continue to correspond. To me, the key is developing relationships over a period of time, so people trust you with news tips.
This to me is one of the things about the debtors prison that was so important. People really responded to the stories. Yes, there were some folks emailing and saying that "if you can't do the time don't do the crime' but most saw this for what it was: Poor people were being punished over and over again simply because they couldn't afford bail or their jail bill, and it happens in our judicial system all the time. It's a continual problem.
Was Steve Stenger crooked from the start? I was having a debate with a friend of mine about this last night. I really don't know. I think, that like Eric Greitens, he fooled a lot of people. Myself included. Yes, I was editorial page editor when we endorsed him the first time. (I have issued a mea culpa for that long ago, including personally to both Charlie Dooley and Rick Stream). Was he corrupted by the power? Most definitely. But I suspect he had that gene in him for a long time and many of us missed it. When you read the indictment, it's clear at least as far back as 2016, that his view of government is a sadly skewed one, in which he views his job as county executive of one of helping his friends and donors, of using the taxpayers for his personal gain and that of those around him. It's disgusting, but, sadly, lots of people continued to allow him to carry on such schemes for a very long time.
Yes, I think the Supreme Court will, if forced to, issue writ in individual cases, as they become aware of those cases. And, yes, voters, in most cases, can vote these judges out because in all of rural Missouri, judges are elected. Frankly, I would prefer that all judges in the state be elevated through the nonpartisan Missouri Plan, as they are in St. Louis and Kansas City and Springfield, three jurisdictions which, coincidentally, don't charge a jail bill. I also think that at some point it is likely that the Supreme Court issues new rules that incorporate their ruling in Richey and Wright cases, thus providing another check on local judges.
So last night, in a 5-1 vote, the County Council made Sam Page the new county executive. No matter who was elevated to the post there was going to be controversy. Such is the nature of politics. People were clamoring for Stenger's job before the body was cold, Page, Hazel Erby, Mark Mantovani. The council went with Page. On one hand, it makes perfect sense. He has been leading the council which has been using its power to try to check Stenger, and he was respected by the Ds and the Rs. By the same token, I would have liked to see somebody, whomever it was, agree to be an interim county executive as a bridge to the next election. Clean things up and take some of the politics out of it. But, now a new regime begins and Page will be judged by his actions.
So how bad will it get? That's a good question. Reading the indictment, I suspect many more indictments and/or guilty pleas. I think it's likely that the feds have much more on Stenger personally, but it's clear that there are other players (Sheila Sweeney, John Rallo) who likely will be facing some sort of charges. What happens now depends on who is/was/will be cooperating with the ongoing investigation. I know I wouldn't want to be Company One or any of the people mentioned in the indictment by initials. It doesn't mean they're guilty of something, but they're clearly being watched by the feds in some capacity.
I found it interesting that there was no discussion in the indictment about Northwest Plaza. It was clearly an area the feds were interested in, as it was mentioned in the subpoena. I would guess when the feds say the investigation is continuing, there may well be something coming on that issue. But there could also be a situation where in some cases, they suspect crimes but can't prove them. Or things are right up against the edge but not quite a crime. We shall see.
The point he was making, and I think it's a valid one, is that there doesn't seem to be a justification for cutting the earnings tax in the city and also cutting property taxes in half in the county, as part of the merger. The math doesn't make sense, and if Better Together can make it so, they aren't showing their work. It sure looks like more of a Rex Sinquefield/Stephen Moore inspired tax cut fantasy than a plan to make St. Louis better. That's a real fear. Why saddle your new mayor and city council with a financial situation in which they'll have to start making cuts right away? If the math works after a merger, let the council make the decision on cutting taxes.