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Messenger: In St. Louis, revolving door goes from City Hall to Lambert

Southwest adding two gates to terminal

The Federal Aviation Administration agreed earlier this year to include St. Louis Lambert International Airport in a pilot program studying whether private management might be a good fit. Photo by Cristina Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com

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As chiefs of staff for Mayor Francis Slay, Jeff Rainford and Mary Ellen Ponder started the ball rolling toward a possible privatization of St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

They’re still promoting the idea, and they’re looking to get paid.

On June 2, Rainford registered as a lobbyist for STL Aviation Group LLC. The company is owned by OakTree Capital Management, a Los Angeles-based investment firm with more than $100 billion in assets. It is one of at least two international firms — Macquarie Group is the other — that have hired Missouri-based lobbyists in advance of a process that could lead to the privatization of Lambert.

That same week in June, Ponder, who replaced Rainford as chief of staff when he left in 2015, joined the Pelopidas political firm led by lobbyist Travis Brown. The company is the lobbying and political arm of wealthy political donor and chess aficionado Rex Sinquefield. Through its nonprofit Grow Missouri, it is running the process by which the city determines whether privatizing its top asset is a good idea.

In March, while Slay was still mayor and Ponder was working for him, the mayor signed a memorandum of representation with Brown and two other consultants, giving them control over the initial stages of airport privatization. Now Ponder works for Brown and may play a role in figuring out what happens next.

“What my involvement will be there (on the airport) is to be determined,” Ponder said Thursday. She said she will sit on some arts boards on behalf of Sinquefield, and work closely with nonprofit Better Together on the ongoing study of city-county consolidation. There is one thing, for sure, that she will not be doing, Ponder said. “I cannot lobby the mayor’s office for a year.”

That’s because a provision of state law requires a one-year cooling off period for key administrative staff in political subdivisions of the state, including cities and the executive branch of state government. The law specifically prohibits, for one year, lobbying the branch of government the employee left.

But there’s another section that raises questions about the involvement of both Ponder and Rainford in any project they worked on while chief of staff for the mayor.

The section says none of the identified employees shall: “Perform any service for any consideration for any person, firm or corporation after termination of his or her office or employment in relation to any case, decision, proceeding or application with respect to which he or she was directly concerned or in which he or she personally participated during the period of his or her service or employment.”

There is no time limit attached to that section of the law.

The idea of airport privatization started during Rainford’s tenure, around the time Sinquefield was pushing a plan to get rid of the city’s 1 percent earnings tax.

“We talked about it,” Rainford said, “But we never did anything. I didn’t work on this in the mayor’s office.”

About a year after he left Slay’s employ and started his own consulting company, Rainford led a delegation that included the mayor on a trip to Denver to learn about privatization efforts there, including one related to the airport. “It was an educational thing,” Rainford said.

Not long after that, Slay met with Sinquefield and Brown, and they offered to finance the initial steps toward privatization. It was all a secret until Slay announced the effort to apply to the Federal Aviation Administration’s program that allows privatization. On that day, he flew to Washington with Brown, who is now Ponder’s boss.

It’s the sort of coziness that spurs government critics to press for ethics laws that make it more difficult for elected and appointed officials to profit from their public service. In Missouri, Pelopidas is the king of the revolving door. Among its employees are former Speaker of the House Tim Jones and former president pro tem of the Senate, Tom Dempsey. Sinquefield had been the top donor to both Republicans, who carried his agenda in the Capitol before going to work for him.

Now he’s collecting some City Hall pawns to add to his chess collection.

Ponder makes no bones about putting her experience in the mayor’s office to good use.

“I really wanted to continue the work I was doing at City Hall,” she said. “I’ve talked to my lawyer about that and he feels pretty comfortable that I am within my rights.”

Whether other potential bidders on the airport privatization are comfortable with the revolving door between the city and the company overseeing the early stages of the process remains to be seen.

Rainford said a “good process” is key or the whole thing falls apart.

“This has to be an auction,” he said of the privatization effort that could net the city hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. “It has to be a competition. It costs a lot of money to go through this process. They don’t want a process that is amateur hour.”

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