ST. LOUIS COUNTY • Even though his next election is more than a year away, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger already has raised more than $2 million for his re-election campaign — a war chest partly filled by business leaders, some of whom run companies that have multi-million dollar contracts with the county.
But until Thursday, Stenger’s campaign did not disclose that any of his donors had a contractual relationship with the county, as state law requires, a Post-Dispatch review of Stenger’s financial reports to the Missouri Ethics Commission shows.
After the Post-Dispatch questioned Stenger’s reports and provided his campaign with a list of donations from companies and individuals who appeared to have county contracts, the campaign amended its campaign reports to disclose seven such donors.
In a statement on Thursday, Stenger’s campaign denied that it had violated Missouri law, but in the “interest of transparency,” was electing to amend the reports based on the list the Post-Dispatch had provided.
Under state law, campaigns must make a “reasonable effort to obtain and report a description of any contractual relationship over five hundred dollars between the contributor … and political subdivision of the state.”
The Ethics Commission provides forms titled “Contractual Relationship Report” to attach to campaign filings.
Other area politicians routinely fill out the form.
Florissant Mayor Thomas Schneider’s campaign included one in its quarterly filing in April. It revealed, among other things, that the city had a $96,000 contract with Biondo Plumbing, whose owner had donated $500 to Schneider in February.
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson disclosed that the firm Development Strategies had donated $250 to her campaign last year while the company was under contract with the city’s development agency.
Yet when J.M. Marschuetz Construction Co. donated $2,250 to Stenger’s campaign on May 4, 2016, bringing its total contributions up to $4,750 for this election cycle, the campaign did not disclose that the company had $4.4 million dollar contract with the county that ended in September.
Nor did Stenger’s campaign reveal that when CH2M Hill Engineers, Inc. donated $2,500 on June 18, 2016, that the firm had a $1 million contract with the county scheduled to end in 2017.
The Post-Dispatch found in a limited search at least a dozen instances where a contractor or owner of a contractor also made a donation to Stenger’s campaign, without the campaign disclosing the relationship.
In some of those instances, however, it’s unclear whether the law required such disclosure.
The state law requiring the disclosure of contractual relationships was designed to give the public some notion of what might be driving political donations, said James Klahr, executive director of the Ethics Commission.
But if that was the intent, the letter of that law does little to protect its spirit.
The law says that campaigns must make a “reasonable effort” to obtain the donor’s information and whether there’s a contract. But it does not define “reasonable.”
The ambiguity “certainly does something to take the teeth out of the law,” Klahr said.
On Thursday, Stenger’s campaign filed amendments to its campaign finance reports revealing that at least seven entities that had contracts with the county also donated to his campaign. The combined value of the contracts totaled $5.6 million.
“Upon review of additional information not reasonably available to Committee staff at the time of the contributions, such additional information shows a possible contractual relationship at the time of certain contributions,” the statement from Stenger’s campaign said. “Because of the complexities inherent in the timing of transactions, in some instances the existence of a contractual relationship was unclear at the time of the contribution and remains unclear today.”
The statement seems to indicate that Stenger’s campaign committee believes it only must disclose contractual relationships if they exist on the date of the donation, when the campaign staff could have asked the donor about it.
But that methodology wouldn’t reveal instances where contracts were awarded within days of donations being made — before a campaign contributions report list is submitted to the state.
“It seems it would be at least a natural thing to me for any committee, especially one that gets quite a few contributions, to do a check at the time of the contribution and maybe do another check at or near the time a report is due,” Klahr said.
The amendments filed on Thursday do not address donors who made contributions in their own names to Stenger’s campaign while their firms were under contract with the county.
For example, lawyer Robert Blitz has donated more than $40,000 to Stenger’s campaign since 2014, according data from the Missouri Ethics Commission.
Blitz’s firm, Blitz, Bardgett & Deutsch, currently has three contracts for legal services with the county, according to county records.
In April 2016, a firm called 5051 Southwest LLC donated $10,000 to Stenger’s campaign, followed by another $10,000 donation in February.
Jeromy Fritz, the registered agent for 5051 Southwest, also is the president of St. Louis Pre-Sort, according to documents filed with the Missouri Secretary of State’s office. In September, the St. Louis County Council authorized Stenger to enter a contract with St. Louis Pre-Sort for mailing services for various county departments.
Klahr said he did not believe the law required campaigns to disclose contractual information if a donor presided over a business that had a contract with a local government, but donated through another business that did not.
However, 5051 Southwest LLC also has a lease with the county, and that relationship was included in one of the amendments Stenger’s campaign filed on Thursday.
This week, the County Council held three committee hearings focusing on contracts with the county’s parks, transportation and health departments. The purpose was to determine if the contracts were tied to campaign donations.
On Tuesday, the council’s Justice and Health Committee summoned St. Louis County Health Director Dr. Faisal Khan to a hearing. Stenger, on behalf of the county’s health department, had requested that the council approve a two-year extension to the county’s contract with LDI Integrated Pharmacy Services to provide medication to patients at the county health centers. The contract is worth $3.5 million per year.
The contract was last put out for bid in 2013. At first, Khan insisted the county would pay more for the same services if it did not extend the contract. But when questioned about savings, he said he had “no hard evidence” to support the statement.
However, Khan said it was too late to rebid the contract for this year. The county needed to have a contract in place by Aug. 1, Khan said. The bidding process takes five months.
Khan said that he did not know if the contract had anything to do with a campaign donation, but that if the county wanted to bid out the contract, it should have made that decision sometime in February.
Within weeks of that deadline passing, the founder of LDI and his two sons personally donated $5,000 each to Stenger’s campaign.