Tensions boiled over Tuesday between St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and the St. Louis County Council over an audit of the county’s fraud controls.
It was perhaps the fiestiest public sparring between Dooley and Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, who are running against each other in the Democratic primary for county executive.
Dooley wanted to hire a private auditing firm – Rubin Brown LLC -- to look at how the county responds to fraud. The contract was a reaction to former county health department official Ed Mueth, who formed a bogus IT company that then obtained county contracts worth millions of dollars. Mueth killed himself when a county investigation closed in on him.
But the council blocked a proposal that would have allocated $95,000 to hire the auditing firm. Among other things, council members – including Stenger – said it was more appropriate for the county’s auditor to conduct such a report.
“The administration’s had 10 years to come up with adequate controls, and up until this point you’ve failed to do so,” Stenger said. “Secondarily, the legislation that you’ve requested asked that the internal audit actually report to the county executive, which isn’t really much of an internal audit reporting directly to the person requesting it. It should report to our auditor that we have through the council.”
Those comments sparked a decidedly hostile exchange between Dooley and the rest of the council.
“Of course, he will report to me, and in turn, we’ll give a report to the county council,” Dooley said. “That’s what we have always done. We’ll continue to do that. But it’s my responsibility to make sure that this does not happen the same way or doesn’t happen again. There have always been safeguards within our structure. Apparently this person got around it.”
Responded Stenger: “You had [Mueth] that embezzled funds for five years. And it went readdressed. When it was finally addressed, 30 days were let lapse and the man committed suicide. That’s certainly not proper procedure.”
Stenger told reporters after Tuesday’s council meeting that the council had the votes to block Dooley’s request to hire a private auditing firm. He also said the council was pondering whether to file a bill to allow the county auditor to look at the county’s fraud controls.
More than anything, Stenger said Dooley's proposal appeared to miss the forest for the trees.
“The administration is claiming that a complex fraud scheme was in place that Mr. Mueth somehow perpetrated, when in all reality what he did was rent computers to the county that would have cost $60,000 if they had been purchased,” Stenger said. ”To now ask taxpayers to spend $95,000 for an opinion regarding the obvious is adding insult to injury.”
After the meeting, Dooley told reporters it was standard procedure for the county executive to handle contracts – and for the council to approve them. He also said there was value in going forward with the audit -- and calling Stenger's comments "Monday morning quarterbacking."
“We did not catch it – and we recognize that we did not catch it,” Dooley said. “So to think that we can think of all the things to look at, we need an outside eyes to look at this and say, ‘Is it what we’re recommending? Does it make sense? Do we need to do some other things in addition to this?’ That’s what we need an outside auditor to tell us.”
The sparring between Stenger and Dooley may be a sign of things to come as the two prepare to run against each in August. While the two have been at odds for years, Tuesday's exchange was perhaps the most public dispute between Dooley and Stenger since a 2011 fight over the county's parks system.
Asked if Tuesday’s disagreement was indicative of future tension, Dooley said: “I can’t speak for him, so I won’t. All I know is he hasn’t said anything for six years, so I don’t know.”
Transportation tax disagreement
The scrap over the audit wasn’t the only source of contention between Stenger and Dooley.
Dooley sent out a press release Tuesday announcing that a 0.75 percent sales tax increase for transportation projects wasn’t “a top priority” of his administration. The statement added that his administration’s focus “lies in addressing the significant problems we face with our schools and the need to provide access to health care for the people in this state who fall through the cracks.”
But roughly a week ago, Dooley told St. Louis Public Radio that "we all know we need more money for the roads in the state of Missouri and our bridges. There’s no question about that. I think I’m in favor of letting people vote for it. That’s a good thing. So again, as we move forward, we all know we have to do something." But Dooley said that prior statement wasn't contradictory.
"I will agree the roads and bridges are important. There's no question about it," Dooley said. "I'm not opposed to it. I'm just saying right now for the August issue, there's more of a priority when it comes to the kids, when it comes to Medicaid and when it comes to freight forwarding."
Stenger, on the other hand, told reporters he supports the transportation tax. While he said “a regressive sales tax wasn’t the best funding mechanism,” Stenger said the projected “100,000 jobs for working families over the next 10 years and $6 billion in investment is too hard to pass up.”
He then said that Dooley's statement was reckless, considering St. Louis officials -- including Dooley -- are working with East-West Gateway to draw up a list of projects that could be funded if the tax passes.
Dooley “should question his own participation in the East-West Gateway because of his position on this tax, and I think it affects his credibility when presenting priority projects for St. Louis County to the Department of Transportation should the tax pass,” Stenger said.
But Dooley disputed that his comments amounted to abdicating responsibility to participate in the East-West Gateway process. He also said Gov. Jay Nixon’s decision to put the tax on the August ballot made it more difficult to select potential projects.
“We don’t have the public engagement, we don’t have the needed input that we need to do a very good job to make sure everybody has inclusion to what’s going on in their community,” Dooley said. “So that puts us at a disadvantage quite frankly.”