A St. Louis County Council committee on Thursday launched a probe of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and St. Louis County Port Authority that will examine the agencies’ procurement policies and real estate transactions.
Led by Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-south St. Louis County, the council’s ethics committee is expected to request financial records and other documents from the economic development agencies as well as call its officials to testify. Trakas said it will be similar to the probe of the Northwest Plaza lease earlier this year, a multimillion-dollar deal that moved county offices to property owned by big campaign donors of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, a Democrat.
A group that has gotten several favorable deals from the Partnership ran their proposals past Director Sheila Sweeney before submitting them.
The investigation into the Partnership and Port Authority comes amid Post-Dispatch reporting raising questions about their contracting procedures. The director of the Partnership and Port Authority, Sheila Sweeney, is a Stenger ally who took over a few months into the county executive’s tenure. Stenger has denied he holds any sway over the agencies.
Election-year politics will swirl around the probe. The county executive is fighting a challenge from businessman Mark Mantovani in the August Democratic Party primary while a bipartisan bloc of the council opposes him at nearly every turn.
At the hearing Thursday, council chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, said he wants to know about a land deal with Stenger donors in Wellston, the failed effort to build a St. Louis Blues practice facility in Creve Coeur Lake Park, and land transfers for a police substation in south St. Louis County. Page said he also is seeking records related to a $422,000 infrastructure consulting contract the Port Authority awarded to Accenture, a project that also paid out $50,000 in associated legal fees to the law firm of Stenger donor Bob Blitz.
Page said his requests for records from the Port Authority are being processed as standard Sunshine Law requests despite a county ordinance saying the council chair is an ex-officio member of the Port Authority’s board. He also said some financial records produced by the agency were “not readable” and called the difficulty of obtaining documents “red flags.”
The Port Authority controls a significant pot of money derived from annual lease payments of some $5 million from the River City Casino in Lemay. It is staffed by the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.
St. Louis County Port Authority funds a lot of projects. Very few of them have anything to do with ports.
Johnny Little, a public relations professional who bid on a controversial $130,000 marketing contract the Port Authority awarded to Stenger donor John Rallo’s Cardinal Creative Consulting, said at the hearing that he was there to speak for minority-owned firms “that are constantly overlooked.”
Rallo’s firm won the contract to market the region in the wake of the Ferguson unrest by touting his ties to former TV host Montel Williams, but Williams said last week he had no ownership in the firm and was paid less than $10,000. The Partnership marked Cardinal Creative as a minority-owned firm in its procurement documents, but Rallo is white.
The celebrity said he only learned the value of a St. Louis County Port authority contract touting his participation from Post-Dispatch reporting.
“Sheila Sweeney and her team chose Cardinal Creative without having one conversation with me,” Little said, emphasizing his marketing work for north St. Louis County school districts and the city of Ferguson.
Trakas said the committee should issue records requests next week and that the process will take several months.
Partnership spokeswoman Katy Jamboretz did not respond to requests for comment.