It’s no wonder Steve Stenger won’t talk to me.
One of the last times the St. Louis County executive took one of my calls, it didn’t go well.
It was in November 2015, a mere 11 months into the Democrat’s current term leading the state’s most populous county. I had a question about a mysterious limited liability company that was writing checks to Stenger $25,000 at a time.
Actually, it was citizen watchdog Tom Sullivan who asked the question first.
Givco LLC wrote its initial $25,000 to Stenger’s campaign fund in July 2015. At the next St. Louis County Council meeting, Sullivan asked about it. Stenger wouldn’t say where the money came from.
Then came another $25,000 check in November.
I asked Stenger where the money came from, and he told me.
It was David and Robert Glarner, the wealthy developer brothers who have redeveloped the old Northwest Plaza, among many other projects in the St. Louis region.
“They handed me the check,” Stenger told me. “They are friends of mine.”
Then he told me something else that didn’t make it into the column:
“I do not believe they have anything before the county.”
It was not entirely true.
More than two years later, it’s clear that those early donations came at the same time a top aide to Stenger, Anthony Badino, was beginning the process that would lead to two 20-year leases with the Glarners. Those leases would end up putting St. Louis County taxpayers on the hook for nearly $70 million. The Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Kohler has reported in a series of stories that despite claims by Stenger that the move of multiple county offices to “his friends’” new building would save taxpayers’ $10 million, it is costing them much more than that, and county employees suspected as much even as they were contemplating the leases.
For Sullivan, none of this is a huge shock. It’s what he expected when he first saw the mysterious $25,000 donation. He knew it was going to be connected to something, he just didn’t know what it would be.
“There’s no question the contributions were planned to be covered up,” Sullivan says. “Everything was done to conceal the source of the contributions. The ‘Givco LLC’ name was a little too cute, so it stood out. ... Little did I know the contributions would grow to $365,000.”
That’s the amount of money the Glarners have given to Stenger since those first two donations from Givco. Shortly after my November 2015 column, they gave up the LLC ruse and started writing the checks under their own names.
Stenger has consistently denied making any decisions on county government business related to campaign contributions. That’s what he told me when he pulled out of an East-West Gateway Council of Governments study on county transit expansion after one of his donors, Jacobs Engineering, didn’t get the contract for the study.
It’s what he told me months later when several stalled road projects put millions of federal dollars in jeopardy. At the time, most of the contractors on those projects hadn’t donated to Stenger.
And it’s what he has maintained about the Glarners’ donations.
But the mounting evidence tells a different story.
Despite Stenger’s comment to the contrary, it turns out that county officials were discussing a possible move of the election board and other county offices to Northwest Plaza in July 2015, and, if the email record collected by County Councilman Ernie Trakas is accurate, the county executive was already involved.
Here’s what former Public Works Director Nichalos Gardner wrote in an email July 7, 2015:
“(Badino) had gotten some direction/insight/request from the Executive on the property search location.”
The next day, another county employee, Nancy Hendrix, wrote that “Mr. Badino would like to know the best way to determine build out cost on a site such as the Crossings.”
One day later, Hendrix writes that she believes county officials need to seek “professional guidance in the public sector. It would be the ethical thing to do with such a large risk.”
Four days after that email, an attorney for the Glarners formed Givco LLC, according to Missouri Secretary of State records. Two weeks after the LLC was formed, it wrote its first $25,000 check to Stenger. By then, the push to consolidate county offices in the Glarners’ new development was well underway.
County officials never sought that outside review. Now the County Council is doing its own investigation to figure out how county taxpayers got taken on a ride that they’ll be paying for over the next two decades.
And questions about the ethics of the Stenger administration multiply like the checks from “his friends” the county executive continues to collect.