CLAYTON • On any typical real estate deal that involved buying or renting office space and relocating St. Louis County workers, the county officials who review leases and help design work space would be involved from the onset.
But the county’s agreement in July 2016 to rent more than 150,000 square feet at the former Northwest Plaza, a two-decade commitment that will cost taxpayers between $69 million and $77 million, was anything but typical.
Three St. Louis County public works officials testified in a two-hour county council hearing on Tuesday that County Executive Steve Stenger’s former campaign manager, Anthony Badino, working for Stenger as a special project manager, directed an effort that started in 2015 to relocate several county offices into leased or purchased space.
Those officials were included in the process only after the site at Northwest Plaza had been selected and a lease had been drafted in early 2016 by the St. Louis County counselor’s office.
The council’s ethics committee is now investigating what led up to the unprecedented lease at the renovated mall in St. Ann, now known as the Crossings at Northwest. The owners of the Crossings, Robert and P. David Glarner, are friends of Stenger who have donated $365,000 to his campaign, an amount that is unparalleled in county politics. The Glarners and Stenger have repeatedly denied that the lease was a reward for supporting Stenger’s campaign, or vice versa.
Stenger did not attend the hearing, and his aides did not make him available for an interview. He said by email to a reporter: “Among other reasons, I advocated for the Crossings because it represents a game-changer for North County and is a key component in our administration’s strategic goal of improving our community. From the day I took office, our administration has directed numerous County departments, personnel and expenditures toward stabilizing and revitalizing this community with the realization that, if one area of St. Louis County were to fail, it would in turn drag down the rest of the region.”
Badino, who no longer works for the county, also did not attend and could not be reached for comment later.
The Glarners’ gifts to Stenger started in the summer of 2015, as county officials were reviewing several options to relocate some county offices to leased or purchased space. By the end of the year, the Glarners had made four donations to Stenger totaling $77,500.
Also around that time, the Stenger administration was reaching a deal for the county to enter an unbreakable 20-year lease.
Bruce Kothe, a public works design and construction project manager, testified the length of the lease was unusual. County leases are typically seven to 10 years, long enough for the county to finance any construction costs at a site.
Although Stenger’s office told the council that the Crossings deal would save the county $10 million, a Post-Dispatch story on Feb. 5 revealed there were no savings and the deal has the potential to cost taxpayers millions.
Council Chairman Sam Page asked County Counselor Peter Krane to research whether the employees who testified would be protected under any whistleblower statute; Krane said he would report back. The next hearing is scheduled for Feb. 20.
The hearing did not get to the bottom of whether Badino or another Stenger official specifically negotiated the lease for the county; the three employees said they were not part of the process.
Ted Medler, the county’s division manager for planning and programming, refuted a common Stenger administration claim that the effort to relocate to the Crossings was underway when Stenger’s predecessor Charlie Dooley was in office. Medler said his staff had considered purchasing some space in the mall in 2014 at the request of then-Democratic elections director Rita Heard Days.
“We couldn’t make it work,” he said. “We pretty much abandoned that.”
But the site came up again in 2015 when an effort began anew to search for office space, he said. The Crossings was one of four sites that was being considered, including an industrial site off of Page Avenue and the former Walmart on St. Charles Rock Road in Bridgeton.
Joe Hunt, a division manager in public works, testified he did not have access to the building until after the lease was signed. He said that was unusual because “I’ve only got six months building out a huge space. I’ve got to get in there look at it and make sure it meets our needs.”