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Who Should Review STL Zoo-Museum District’s Ethics Code? Committee Members Spar

The ZMD Board met at the St. Louis Art Museum May 8.
Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

  Everyone on the St. Louis Zoo-Museum District board agrees its ethics code should be re-evaluated. But the question of who should review it has become a heated internal debate.

During a recent meeting, board chair Thelma Cook asked board members Tom Campbell, Ben Uchitelle and Charles Valier to serve on a committee to examine the ethics policy. Cook named Campbell the committee chair.

On May 5, Valier sent Cook an email, questioning Campbell’s presence and his leadership role. In his email, Valier alleged that: “To put [Campbell] in charge of the committee to reform our Code of Ethics will undermine that effort and communicate to the public that the ZMD does not want true reform.”

Valier cited Campbell’s prior statement to St. Louis Public Radio that he’s not sure the ethics policy needs revision.

In a subsequent phone call, Campbell said, “I’m open to changes if they are necessary.” But he reiterated his concern about a too-strict ethics code, using a hypothetical example.

“If I have a mutual fund and that fund holds stock in a company that does business with one of these cultural institutions, then I don’t want to be in violation,” Campbell said.

‘Poison-pill letter’

On Thursday, the conflict erupted during a meeting at the St. Louis Art Museum, which followed the museum’s presentation of its 2014 budget to the ZMD board. Campbell questioned Valier’s decision to send an email instead of picking up the phone.

“Why didn’t you call instead of sending a poison-pill letter?” Campbell asked Valier.

Valier pointed out that he raised the issue of examining the ethics code in January. The push to review the policy gained strength after the April resignation of ZMD board member Pat Whitaker, who was accused of a conflict of interest after her design firm was awarded a contract with the Science Center.

The Science Center is one of five institutions for which the ZMD oversees $70 million in tax dollars.

In his email questioning Campbell’s ability to serve on and chair the ethics-policy review committee, Valier also alleged that Campbell, Uchitelle and Cook all had some knowledge of Whitaker’s company’s impending Science Center contract before it became public knowledge.

“By keeping the information secret and not acting on a rapidly developing crisis the result was inevitable,” Valier wrote.

All three denied having prior information about Whitaker and the Science Center contract. Cook previously told St. Louis Public Radio that Whitaker told her that her company “might be doing some work with the History Museum.”

Campbell said he did not know any specifics until Whitaker sent an email April 18, letting other board members know of the situation. But during Thursday’s meeting, Valier said that anyone with even partial information should have spoken up.

“There was an appearance of conflict,” Valier said.

“Who has the obligation to find out the facts?” Uchitelle asked.

“Our board does,” Valier answered.

ZMD board member Gloria Wessels questioned Cook Thursday about whether Whitaker’s statement regarding her company should have made Cook think, “That’s not good.”

“Don’t tell me what to think,” Cook responded.

A committee meeting regarding the ethics code is scheduled for noon on Monday, May 12 at the ZMD offices. Valier had asked for ZMD attorney Mike Chivell to be present. But as chairman, Campbell said no, that Chivell should review their recommendations at a later date.

“I’d like to run a draft by Mike and get fresh eyes on it,” Campbell said.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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