Tapes show St. Louis’ failed quest to privatize Lambert airport was riddled with secrecy
The quest to privatize St. Louis Lambert International Airport died several years ago, but recently released recordings of closed-door meetings may validate accusations that the process was marred by secrecy and obfuscation.
The city-appointed group assembled to evaluate proposals to privatize Lambert held hours of private meetings involving topics that should have been discussed in public, said an attorney who disclosed newly released recordings and documents.
The Airport Advisory Working Group met 47 times behind closed doors between 2018 and 2019 to consider proposals for privately managing and operating the city-owned airport, an effort backed by billionaire Rex Sinquefield.
The Missouri Sunshine Law allows public bodies to meet privately to discuss certain matters, like legal advice, leasing, real estate negotiations and personnel issues.
But Mark Pedroli, who sued St. Louis for alleged violations of the Sunshine Law, said the working group held hours of closed-door discussions on matters that should have occurred publicly, such as talks about conflicts of interest and how to sell the idea of airport privatization to the public.
“The only surprise, if there’s anything to be surprised about, was the breadth of the discussions and violations of the open meetings law,” said Pedroli, a St. Louis lawyer representing the Sunshine and Government Accountability Project, which sued the city in 2019. “The issues they did in fact discuss — what their policies should be about conflicts of interest — that’s a policy discussion. You don’t have a policy-creating discussion in closed session.”
“There is a danger in these closed sessions.”
During a Dec. 10, 2019, closed-door meeting of the working group, Michael Garvin, a deputy city counselor for St. Louis, sounded caution about the nature of the group's private discussions while he briefed members about the Sunshine and Government Accountability Project lawsuit, which was filed just days before.
“There is a danger in these closed sessions,” Garvin said. “We have long closed sessions, occasionally our conversation may stray a little.”
Garvin did not respond to a request for comment.
That meeting was one of the last for the working group. On Dec. 20, 2019, then-St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson announced on St. Louis on the Air that she would tell the group not to carry on with issuing a request for proposals. That announcement effectively ended an effort to find a private manager for Lambert.
Proponents of privatization said it could help modernize and improve the city-owned airport. But critics said the process was shrouded in secrecy and raised concerns about insider deals. The process started in 2017 when former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay submitted an application to the Federal Aviation Administration just before he left office.
In the end, Krewson decided there was not enough support to move ahead on the privatization effort.
Pedroli released the documents and recordings of the working group's closed meetings on Twitter this week. In a tweet thread, he wrote that he sent an offer to the city to resolve the case if it admits that the closed meetings violated the law.
“We believe that this is an excellent opportunity for Mayor [Tishaura] Jones … to cement her legacy against the secretive privatization process and, most importantly, prevent the recurrence of this illegal process,” Pedroli wrote. “We urge the Mayor to finish them off.”
Nick Dunne, a spokesperson for Jones, said in an email that the city was “always willing to consider a reasonable resolution of any case.”
“As Treasurer, Mayor Jones strongly opposed the privatization of St. Louis Lambert International Airport, and will continue to promote further transparency in local government,” Dunne wrote.
‘They are the business community’
It was during that same Dec. 10 meeting that working group members discussed at length whether Jeff Rainford, an aide to former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, had a conflict of interest for his involvement with STL Aviation Group, one of the groups interested in operating the airport.
The minutes of that meeting were previously leaked to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The recording of the meeting, provided online by Pedroli this week, provides more detail of the discussion.
Then-Deputy Mayor Linda Martinez wanted to amend the minutes of a previous meeting to say the group had not concluded that Rainford had an actual conflict of interest, rather that there was only an appearance of a conflict.
“I’m not comfortable with saying there is no actual conflict — I cannot say that,” Paul Payne, the chairman of the working group, said at the time. “I can say that we all agreed there was an appearance of a conflict. So I’ll agree with that. That’s what we said. The conclusion was he should be excluded. That was pretty definitive.”
“We thought he should be excluded,” Martinez replied. “I don’t think we said we should be the ones to tell them who their team members should be.”
Marc Ellinger, an attorney with ties to Sinquefield, suggested that the group should adopt the position that there was an appearance of a conflict, which most members agreed to.
Months before that meeting, Rainford withdrew his registration as STL Aviation Group’s lobbyist. He told the Post-Dispatch in May 2019 that he would remain involved with Oaktree Capital Management, the lead firm behind STL Aviation Group.
During that December meeting, Martinez lamented the outcome for Rainford.
“He lost his job because of us,” she said.
It was during that meeting, too, that Martinez advocated for advancing STL Aviation Group for further consideration by the airport working group. At that time, STL Aviation Group was not among the bidders recommended for further consideration.
Martinez said she worried about the message it would send if the group did not pick “somebody who has actual knowledge of a lot of things that are going on in St. Louis.”
“I would ask that if you could think about revisiting that conversation,” Martinez said. “I think there will be a lot of unintended consequences and messages locally about taking them off the list.”
Other members were less keen on STL Aviation Group, largely on account of a presentation it gave that apparently did not go well.
One member wondered about the reaction from the St. Louis business community if STL Aviation Group were selected.
“They are the business community,” Martinez said. “Dave Steward is the business community.”
Steward, chairman of World Wide Technologies, was listed as a team member in STL Aviation Group’s proposal.
Messaging to the public
Closed meeting minutes show the working group spent time privately discussing how to present its work publicly and its strategy for dealing with the press, topics that are not permissible in closed-door meetings, according to state law.
A Sept. 24, 2019, closed meeting was spent discussing how to prepare a press release and disseminate information about an upcoming vote on a request for qualifications.
Of particular concern was the timing and how to alert the public about a vote.
“What is the concern if you say to the public, so that we could say to commission, that the anticipation would be that we would have a meeting … on Thursday and we do expect that a vote could be taken at that time? What is the challenge with saying that?” airport director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge asked.
Glenn Muscosky, a director with Moelis & Company, which consulted with the group, expressed concern about losing control of the narrative and preferred an opportunity to “be first with the message.”
“That puts the city in a very good position,” Muscosky said. “Absent that, everyone else is diluting the message that we might send. Everyone is going to know, they’re all going to make suppositions, hypotheses and cloud the message we want to take to the market.”
“This place leaks like a sieve, I mean seriously,” Martinez said moments later. “The airlines are waiting for us to leak. They’ve called us out, we’re the leakers. We’ve said over and over again that we’re going to release it to the website in a very positive and thoughtful way of trying to maximize the potential benefit instead of having a [St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist] Tony Messenger story about some process thing. I’d like us to have the most positive narrative so we can have the best responses. We still may not do the transaction but we’re just trying to set it up.”
Based at St. Louis Public Radio, Steve Vockrodt is the Midwest Newsroom’s investigative editor. Follow him on Twitter: @SteveVockrodt