CLAYTON — A former director of the office that awards contracts has sued St. Louis County claiming that he was wrongfully fired in 2018 after he raised concerns about then-County Executive Steve Stenger’s pay-to-play schemes.
Chief among those concerns, the suit claims, was that Stenger’s staff had designed a bill establishing standards for inclusion of women- and minority-owned businesses in contracts to make it easier for him to serve up no-bid contracts to his political donors.
The council voted 7-0 in April 2018 to approve the inclusion ordinance, which it hailed as a landmark effort to reverse significant disparities that had been identified for all minority- and women-owned businesses in both prime contracts and first-tier subcontracts.
On Wednesday, the council’s presiding officer, Ernie Trakas, said in a brief interview that the allegation that Stenger had used the inclusion ordinance to benefit himself was troubling and that he might consider asking the council to revisit its vote.
“I think, at least now, it merits some inquiry, certainly,” Trakas said.
In a lawsuit filed in August in St. Louis County Circuit Court, Robert Jenkins claimed that he repeatedly raised concerns about Stenger’s control over how the county awards contracts — as well as aspects of the inclusion legislation that he felt were illegal. But he said he was told to “learn how the county did business.” He is seeking damages for lost wages, emotional distress and attorney’s fees.
A lawyer for the county in October filed a response largely denying Jenkins’ claims and asserting a variety of reasons why the case should be dismissed, including that Jenkins had been a probationary, at-will employee and that he did not state any claims upon which relief could be granted.
The county also claimed that Jenkins was not fired for refusing to break the law “or for reporting wrongdoing or violations of law to superiors or public authorities.”
Jenkins was hired as director of procurement in October 2017 and reported to Pamela Reitz, director of administration, until she retired at the end of that year. A federal indictment against Stenger earlier this year revealed that Reitz had stood up to block Stenger’s plot to direct a fraudulent contract to one of his donors and that Stenger had said he wanted her to be fired. Reitz, reached on Wednesday, said she had no comment.
Jenkins said he told Reitz in late 2017 that he had discovered irregularities in the procurement process and that his office had no independent authority because Stenger ran the process. He said Reitz acknowledged the problem before she retired.
Jenkins then reported to Paul Kreidler, the budget director who took over as acting director of administration. The suit claims that in meetings with Kreidler and others, Jenkins opposed two pieces of the inclusion bill. One implemented “bid discounting” for some minority vendors and the other created a “rotational program” that would award some contracts under $25,000 on a rotating basis to a list of vendors, bypassing the requirement for competitive bids.
He said that in meetings, he told colleagues those programs were illegal and “conflicted with the requirement under federal law that public procurement policies and practices that implement race and gender based programs must have narrowly tailored measures that further a compelling governmental interest.”
Jenkins said those provisions also gave Stenger the ability to award contracts to his donors without bidding — and without oversight from the procurement office.
In March 2018, the suit said, Kreidler extended Jenkins’ probationary period for six months, saying it was a way for Jenkins to “gain an appreciation for how the county does business” to ensure his continued employment. Jenkins said Kreidler retaliated against him by removing him from work that involved revising the county’s procurement process or negotiating existing contracts to save money.
Kreidler did not respond to a request for comment. Doug Moore, a spokesman for County Executive Sam Page, said in an email, “Since this is pending litigation, we are not going to comment.”
The suit said Jenkins escalated his concerns in county government and finally met with the FBI on Aug. 21, 2018.
A week later, the suit said, Kreidler fired him and said it was because he had “failed to gain an appreciation for how the county did business.”
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