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Lawyers for officer awarded nearly $20 million offered to settle case in April for $850,000

Lawyers for officer awarded nearly $20 million offered to settle case in April for $850,000

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Updated at 4:39 p.m. with reaction, additional details

CLAYTON — St. Louis County Police Sgt. Keith Wildhaber offered to settle his discrimination lawsuit for $850,000 plus a promotion to lieutenant six months before a jury awarded him nearly $20 million, the Post-Dispatch has learned.

On Wednesday, County Counselor Beth Orwick said that the Board of Police Commissioners had refused to settle the case, but did not indicate the amount that had been discussed. 

Reached on Thursday, the board’s former chairman, Roland Corvington, declined to comment. The other four members of the police board, Laurie Westfall, Lawrence Wooten, Mark Gaertner and Art Johnson, did not respond to calls and texts from a reporter.

Wildhaber’s attorneys at the Riggan Law Firm sent the terms of the settlement to former St. Louis County Counselor Peter Krane and Assistant County Counselor Mike Hughes on April 5, 2019, according to sources familiar with the case.

The attorneys cautioned the county that they had evidence to support Wildhaber’s claims that Chief Jon Belmar and his command staff had refused to promote him because he is gay.

Wildhaber’s attorney, Russ Riggan, declined to comment Thursday, saying, “The firm is not in a position to comment because the litigation is ongoing.”

Hughes and Krane had until April 19 to respond, but never did, according to the sources.

Hughes was the county’s lead attorney during the five-day trial that ended Oct. 25.

The settlement offer came at a time when the county counselor’s office was answering federal subpoenas connected to the FBI investigation that brought down then County Executive Steve Stenger

County Executive Sam Page replaced Stenger on April 29.

Page announced the appointment of Orwick as county counselor at a County Council meeting June 25. She was confirmed by the County Council on July 16.

On Wednesday, Orwick blamed the five-member police board for not settling the Wildhaber case. The commission is a five-member board appointed by the county executive. Page announced this week that he will be replacing some of the commissioners.

“Many times, the best outcome is a settlement but there are many reasons that cases are not settled,” Orwick said. “In this case the Board of Police Commissioners decided not to settle.”

Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-4th District, said she did not think the County Council had been made aware of the settlement offer.

“It would have saved us a lot of money if they had gone ahead and settled,” she said. “I think that just lends to the indication that we do need to change the current Board of Police Commissioners.”

Wildhaber, a 24-year St. Louis County police veteran, filed the lawsuit in January 2017, claiming a former St. Louis County Police Board member told him to “tone down your gayness” if he wanted to be promoted.

He also alleged in his lawsuit that he was involuntarily transferred in retaliation for filing his EEOC complaint, to the midnight shift in the Jennings Precinct from afternoon shifts in the Affton Precinct.

Belmar took the stand for 3½ hours over two days.

He testified that the timing of Wildhaber’s transfer, which happened within weeks of his discrimination complaint, was “completely coincidental.”

Belmar also testified that he had legitimate reasons not to promote Wildhaber, including a three-day suspension Wildhaber served in 2008 for not filing 23 police reports while working as a fraud detective and Wildhaber's failure to tell the department of his involvement in an FBI investigation. 

Wildhaber’s attorneys called in witnesses, including other police officers, to testify about the retaliatory and discriminatory culture within the department under Belmar’s command. 

Capt. Guy Means denied knowing a woman who testified that he told her Wildhaber was too “fruity” to get promoted, but she gave the jury a picture of the two of them bear hugging each other in a photo booth at the event just hours before they went into deliberations.

In his closing argument, Riggan said Wildhaber estimated he had lost out on $165,000 in pay by not being promoted over the years. Jurors came back just under three hours later with a verdict more than 120 times that amount.

The jury of five men and seven women, almost equally divided along racial lines, deliberated for about three hours before reaching its verdict.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell has said he will investigate any potential perjury that might have occurred during the trial. 

Becker’s role

Page and Orwick on Wednesday expressed disgust at an argument made by two lawyers defending the county in the Wildhaber case — that his lawsuit should be dismissed because it is legal to discriminate against gay people in Missouri.

But that was far from a new stance for the county, which made the same argument several times at the start of the case, when the lead attorney was Carl J. Becker.

“The sole basis for Plaintiff’s discrimination claim is the alleged remarks by Police Commissioner Saracino regarding Plaintiff’s ‘sexuality’ and ‘gayness,’” Becker wrote in a memorandum in support of the county’s motion to dismiss the case in March 2017.

“Both the words ‘sexuality’ and ‘gayness’ refer to sexual orientation or preference. Thus, Plaintiff’s claim rests on a class not recognized as protected in Missouri.”

In March, Becker withdrew from the case because he was selected to a new job — human resources director for the Police Department.

The Post-Dispatch sought clarification from Orwick and Page about exactly when the county’s legal team was instructed to stop pursuing the argument that it was legal to discriminate against gay people; they did not respond.

Becker did not respond to a question from the newspaper asking him if he still felt the same way, and Belmar did not respond when asked if he stood behind Becker as director of human resources.

Ordinance not enforced  

While discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation may be legal in Missouri, it is not legal in St. Louis County.

The County Council in 2012 passed an ordinance that added gender identity and sexual orientation to the county’s anti-discrimination regulations and hate crimes law.

But the enforcement arm for the county’s nondiscrimination law, a commission set up by ordinance to have extraordinary powers, has been broken for years.

The St. Louis County Human Relations Commission can initiate on its own or “receive, investigate, and seek to adjust all complaints of discriminatory practices prohibited by ordinances of St. Louis County.”

Under county law, it can hold public or private hearings, ask the County Council to issue subpoenas, administer oaths and take testimony.

But the nine-member board has four vacancies, and its five members are serving on long-expired terms. The board last met in May.

Chairman Bob Cohn, editor emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light, said he has been associated with the commission since 1964. He said he had been reappointed by every county executive since Lawrence K. Roos, who served from 1963 to 1975.

Cohn recalled in the early days, the board considered complaints when people of color were refused services at shops. He remembered being part of an investigation when a dude ranch turned away a group from a racially-mixed school; the ranch later relented and apologized, he said. A search of the Post-Dispatch archives indicates the commission once kept tabs on hate groups and intervened when a country club tried to limit hours for women golfers.

Cohn said the board would typically seek to mediate complaints, but could get the county counselor or county prosecutor to intervene when necessary.

But the board withered for years. A search of records indicates former County Executive Steve Stenger made just one appointment to the board.

“There was no action taken on our membership and a few people resigned,” Cohn said. “All the commissioners’ appointments expired and we began to feel like General Halftrack in the Beetle Bailey comic strip, waiting to hear from the Pentagon. We were never called upon and we didn’t know how they wanted us to perform.”

Cohn said he heard about the Wildhaber case from news reports.

“We would have contacted the various officials and him, and met with him to see if there was any way to work it out through mediation,” he said. “The next step would have been asking the prosecuting attorney to intervene” in a violation of the county ordinance.

More recently, Cohn said, Page’s administration has taken an interest in rekindling the commission.

“We would need some kind of mission going forward, and the official backing of the county executive and county council are essential.”

Read the coverage of the Wildhaber suit, trial and decisions after the verdict

County leaders call the Wildhaber suit, trial and verdict 'wake-up call.'

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