Subscribe for 99¢

CLAYTON — The union that represents city police and county prosecutors called St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell’s move to fire a fourth veteran prosecutor this week an “unlawful retaliation for union membership and protected speech.”

Bell’s office on Thursday suspended Assistant Prosecutor Susan Petersen with pay pending an investigation. Petersen has worked for the county prosecutors’ office since December 1998 and earned an annual salary of $102,689.60. She declined to comment.

Petersen would be the fourth prosecutor Bell has forced out this year. Three were let go on Bell’s second day in office, resulting in $170,000 in settlements to the former prosecutors.

The St. Louis Police Officers Association, which has represented prosecutors and investigators in the office since they voted to unionize last year, said Petersen’s ouster would be illegal and carried out “with no evidence or cause.”

“County taxpayers can look forward to paying more money in settlements under this hostile and anti-union management team,” the union said in a statement Friday.

In a statement, Sam Alton, Bell’s chief of staff, said the office won’t comment on specifics of personnel matters, and that Bell will make a decision about the prosecutor’s employment after an internal investigation is complete.

“We will continue to steadfastly abide by St. Louis County civil service rules,” Alton said. “It is our duty to make sure this office runs efficiently and professionally. We take that mandate very seriously and will continue to work to keep the citizens of St. Louis County safe.”

Bell has said that while he supports workers’ rights to unionize, he thinks his staff should not have joined the one that represents city police officers because it “presents an inherent conflict of interest with respect to prosecuting those cases, working with those officers and making sure the public has confidence in the unbiased and impartial ability of this office to prosecute cases.”

The prosecutors and investigators voted in December to join the police union, before Bell took office.

The three other former prosecutors who reached settlements with St. Louis County are Jennifer Coffin, Kathi Alizadeh and Ed McSweeney.

Coffin butted heads with a former public defender who now works for Bell. Alizadeh was among prosecutors who presented evidence to a grand jury that in 2014 declined to indict a Ferguson police officer for killing 18-year-old Michael Brown. McSweeney criticized Bell on social media the day after Bell defeated incumbent Prosecutor Robert McCulloch in the August 2018 Democratic primary.