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Government, Politics & Issues

State Audit Slams County Council For Not Doing Enough To Stop Stenger’s Corruption

Former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger walks out of federal court in May after pleading guilty to three counts of public corruption for steering county contracts to campaign donors.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger walks out of federal court in May 2019 after pleading guilty to three counts of public corruption for steering county contracts to campaign donors.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway released her audit of St. Louis County on Tuesday, which not surprisingly showed that former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger charted out a corrupt administration that abused the public trust.

But the audit also said the county council didn’t ensure enough oversight to stop Stenger from ransacking the county, a contention that’s been disputed by some council members.

"Steve Stenger used his position to his personal and political advantage and abused taxpayer dollars. That scheme rightly resulted in prison time and heavy fines for him," Galloway said in a statement. "My report shines a light on the lack of oversight that allowed that fraud to take place. The county must take action to ensure that the appropriate safeguards are in place for the future."

Right after Stenger resigned while facing corruption charges, the council unanimously voted to have Galloway audit the county. The audit results, which were first reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a few weeks ago, said Stenger “abused his position and manipulated and circumvented procurement and contract policies and procedures as part of the pay-to-play scheme.”

Stenger pleaded guilty in 2019 to funneling county business to a campaign donor, John Rallo, in exchange for thousands of dollars in contributions. Former St. Louis Economic Development Partnership chief Sheila Sweeney pleaded guilty to covering up the scheme and not telling law enforcement about it. Rallo also pleaded guilty to similar charges as Stenger, as did former Stenger chief of staff Bill Miller.

“Several significant weaknesses in the county's charter and ordinances allowed the former County Executive to abuse his position to manipulate the procurement and contract award processes of the county,” the audit states. “The County Charter allows the County Executive to delay contracts indefinitely and ordinances regarding procurement procedures provided the former County Executive the ability to manipulate those procedures.”

But Galloway’s audit also criticized the county council for inadequate oversight of Stenger. She said the council “did not perform sufficient due diligence over lease agreements, did not provide oversight of employees appointed by the County Executive and did not ensure the county's internal audit capabilities were operating effectively.”

It also contends that the county’s auditor, Mark Tucker, doesn’t possess adequate qualifications to perform his job. Stenger complained when he was county executive that Tucker wasn’t doing enough work and wasn’t qualified to hold the position. The council is in charge of appointing the county auditor.

“Improved oversight from the County Council and the County Auditor would have helped identify some portion of the inappropriate and criminal actions of the former County Executive,” the audit states. “The Council has a duty to the taxpayers of St. Louis to ensure oversight of the County Executive and the administration.”

The audit criticized the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership board for not providing adequate oversight of the agency. It also said that the county hadn’t developed adequate policies toward people the county executive appoints.

Council responds

St. Louis County Council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy (left) and County Councilman Ernie Trakas (center) both have proposals to change the county's panhandling regulations.
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the St. Louis County Council pushed back against Galloway's contentions that they weren't responsive enough to Stenger's criminality.

In a response to the audit, members of the county council wrote “we would be remiss if we did not point out that the report seems to operate upon an inaccurate premise, namely that St. Louis County government is Council-managed.”

“Beyond appropriation authority, the county charter gives the council limited oversight power over the executive branch,” the council wrote. “The St. Louis County Council confronted unprecedented challenges over the past few years dealing with the criminal administration of Steve Stenger. Beginning in 2017, the council, as the elected representatives of the people, spent the majority of the last four years in hearings, investigating, and pursuing legal action to reveal and rein in the corruption of the past administration.”

The response also said the council failed to proactively use its powers over things like real estate purchases and leases prior to 2017, when Stenger's supporters still made up a majority of the council. It also said it should pass an ordinance adding qualifications and more clearly defining the county auditor’s position. The Post-Dispatch reported earlier this week that changes may be coming soon to the auditor’s office.

One of the council members who was especially critical of Galloway was Ernie Trakas. While recording an episode of St. Louis Public Radio’s Politically Speaking on Monday, the south St. Louis County Republican pushed back against the idea that the council wasn’t aggressive enough at ferreting out Stenger’s corruption.

He pointed to how the council investigated a lease Stenger made to move a number of county offices to what’s known as Northwest Plaza in St. Ann.

“The council has to assert itself in every way possible to maintain oversight over the county executive and sometimes push the envelope,” Trakas said. “And that’s what the council did in ‘17 and ‘18.”

Asked why the council didn’t vote to request Galloway audit the county before Stenger was indicted on corruption charges, Trakas said, “We never got a clear picture of what this was going to cost the county — and that was another huge deal.”

In addition to committing county money for the Northwest Plaza lease, Trakas noted that the council had to cut the county budget, to less than what Stenger wanted.

Before the audit was released, Page told reporters that his office will be reviewing Galloway’s recommendations “and responding to them like a typical process in an audit.”

“I’m grateful for that review, and I’m grateful for those recommendations,” Page said last month. “We will provide our response, and we’ll adjust the way we operate in county government wherever it’s necessary.” He did not immediately respond to a request for further comment on Tuesday.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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