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County council passes resolution to remove Stenger

County Executive Steve Stenger enters the room before a meeting of the county council on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com.

CLAYTON • St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger has hired prominent criminal defense attorney Scott Rosenblum, even though he doesn’t think he is the target of a federal grand jury subpoena served on the county last week.

Stenger, accompanied by his spokesman Cordell Whitlock, spoke briefly with a Post-Dispatch reporter Wednesday as he left a Starbucks in downtown Clayton, and declined to confirm he had hired Rosenblum. But Rosenblum separately confirmed a report by the St. Louis Business Journal, based on unnamed sources, that he’d been retained by Stenger.

Stenger, a Democrat, repeated his previous prepared statement that the county would cooperate fully with the subpoena, although he said he did not think it was accurate to say he was a target. And he characterized the subpoena as a “routine” matter.

“Believe it or not, it’s fairly routine that these kinds of things happen,” Stenger said. “It happened in the (St. Louis County Executive Charlie) Dooley administration. It happened in (St. Louis Mayor Francis) Slay’s administration, and the chief legal officer works it out and coordinates the effort to get the subpoenas answered.”

Scott Rosenblum

Scott Rosenblum

Asked why he thought the government was looking into his texts and the personnel files of people he hired, he said, “The only thing I can say is we were served a subpoena, and we’re going to comply with it.”

Former mayor Slay, now a lawyer in private practice, said in an email that “my messages and records were never subpoenaed by law enforcement authorities.”

In 2004, a St. Louis grand jury subpoenaed some members of his administration during an investigation into the retirement and rehiring of former Slay director of operations Marie Jeffries. But Slay said he had asked for that investigation because he “discovered that someone had forged Marie Jeffries’ retirement papers.”

Dooley, whom Stenger defeated in a 2014 Democratic primary, said it seemed clear that Stenger was the target of this probe.

“If he’s not under investigation, then why did he hire the attorney he did hire?” Dooley said. “All the time I was county executive, I was never investigated or subpoenaed. Never.”

His administration at times struggled to deflect accusations of corruption. In 2013, then county police chief Tim Fitch, now a Republican county councilman for the third district, called for an investigation into a county crime lab contract awarded to the former chairman of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners. The U.S. Attorney’s office found no wrongdoing, and Dooley has said that investigation cost him the election.

In 2010, the FBI even came out to rebut reports on KMOX (1120 AM) that suggested Dooley was under investigation. The Post-Dispatch had reported a week before that the county counselor received a federal subpoena seeking information about former Dooley staffer Darin Cline.

“They (federal authorities) didn’t ask for anything from me,” Dooley said. “It was strictly about Cline, nobody else in my administration. Every time I ran for office, the paper or radio said I was under investigation, which wasn’t true. Remember the time the FBI even came out and said I wasn’t? It was because I was an African-American and people would believe (expletive) about African-Americans. Didn’t matter what I said, it made no difference.”

Dowd involved?

Rosenblum isn’t the only local defense attorney looking for business related to the federal investigation.

Ed Dowd, a partner at preeminent defense firm Dowd Bennett, also sought support from a St. Louis County Council member for an ordinance allowing the county to hire the firm to assist it in complying with a federal subpoena.

Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, said Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-1st District, told him that Dowd had called her and asked whether she would support an ordinance allowing the county to hire him to help it comply with the subpoena.

Erby said she was asked to support a council resolution to hire Dowd, though she did not want to reveal who called to ask her. She said County Counselor Peter Krane’s office should be more than able to turn over the records requested in the subpoena without the help of an outside law firm.

“It sounds simple to me,” Erby said. “Just give them the information. … This isn’t about the county. This is about Steve Stenger.”

Trakas, too, said he didn’t see why Krane’s office needed outside support to compile the records.

“Someone’s going to have to explain to me why we’re hiring a high-profile law firm simply to comply with a subpoena,” he said.

Stenger said he wasn’t aware of any effort from the county to hire Dowd.

Dowd did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Late Wednesday, the St. Louis County Council posted a notice for a special meeting at 8 p.m. Thursday that includes a “discussion of request from the county counselor to retain outside counsel for the purpose of responding to a federal grand jury subpoena.”

Edward Dowd Jr.

Edward L. Dowd Jr. on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

Both Dowd and Rosenblum were part of the defense team for former Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned last year amid allegations of campaign finance violations and a criminal invasion of privacy charge related to an accusation he took a photo of a partly nude woman without her consent.

The news of the federal inquiry into the county broke on Sunday when St. Louis County Council Chairman Sam Page, D-2nd District, said he had viewed the subpoena Friday after asking Krane, the county counselor, to show him a copy.

Though Page and Stenger are both Democrats, Page and a bipartisan bloc on the council have opposed Stenger on budgets and other matters for two years. Last year, the council called for a federal investigation into the move of many county offices to a new leasehold at Northwest Plaza, owned by Robert and P. David Glarner. The Glarners have given $365,000 in campaign contributions to Stenger.

Page said the subpoena asked for Stenger’s texts, call history and emails with current and former employees related to county contracts. It asked for similar information from seven members of Stenger’s senior staff, Page said, as well as several specific contracts. The one he remembered for sure was a 2017 sale of two Wellston industrial parks formerly owned by a county economic development arm.

The St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, which manages the county’s economic development arms, said on Monday it had also received a subpoena.

Page said the subpoena also requested texts and emails from about seven senior members of Stenger’s staff, though he only remembered the names of senior policy advisers Lance LeComb and Patti Hageman, who joined his administration in October and January respectively.

LeComb, a former spokesman for the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, is married to former Slay chief of staff Mary Ellen Ponder, who works for wealthy political donor Rex Sinquefield. Sinquefield is expected to finance a large part of the Better Together campaign that seeks to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County. The merger plan would have made Stenger the metro mayor until 2025, but Better Together amended its petition this week after news of the federal subpoena broke.

One was Sean Rhode, the brother of Stenger campaign organizer Ed Rhode. Ed Rhode, who works as a spokesman for Better Together, is married to Hageman, a senior policy adviser for Stenger.

The third is Lou Aboussie, 60, a former special assistant for U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-University City. Clay endorsed Stenger in the 2014 general election, which Stenger has said was critical to his success.

Joel Currier of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.


St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger pleaded guilty to pay-for-play charges: Some background reading

Here's a collection of Post-Dispatch stories looking at some of the controversies surrounding the St. Louis County Executive.

Jacob Barker is a business reporter for the Post-Dispatch. 314-340-8291

Jeremy Kohler is an investigative reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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