CLAYTON • On March 4, St. Louis County invited companies to bid on selling the Board of Elections 1,200 computerized tablets to check in voters at polling precincts. One well-connected vendor provided more than the 52-page bid documents had spelled out.
On March 11, Scott Leiendecker donated $10,000 to the campaign treasury of County Executive Steve Stenger, according to documents filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission.
Two months later, the County Board of Elections awarded Leiendecker’s company a contract worth up to $2.1 million to supply the county with the company’s “first of its kind, tablet-based electronic poll book.”
It’s not the only time Stenger campaign donors have recently benefited from the county’s business.
As the Post-Dispatch previously reported, Stenger just last month announced that the county planned to move the Elections Board from its longtime headquarters in Maplewood to renovated offices at the former Northwest Plaza shopping center in St. Ann. The development is owned by David and Bob Glarner, who donated $75,000 to Stenger last year through a holding company.
The 20-year lease is worth up to $50 million in rent from the Elections Board and two other county agencies relocating there.
Leiendecker, a former Republican elections director for St. Louis, is the founder and managing director of KnowiNK, a local startup that has successfully marketed its trademark “poll pad” to election authorities in Missouri and several other states.
Another bidder, Konnech Inc. of Okemos, Mich., received a separate $364,000 contract to oversee the county “Election Management System.”
There is no record of campaign contributions from Konnech or two unsuccessful poll book developers, Scytl Corp. of Oklahoma City and ES&S Inc. of Omaha, Neb.
The KnowiNK and Konnech contracts were never discussed, considered or authorized by the County Council.
To West County Republican Councilman Mark Harder, the Leiendecker donation in tandem with the bypassing of the council on a multimillion-dollar contract “doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Stenger and Democratic Elections Director Eric Fey attribute the specification for council approval in the county’s request for proposal — or RFP — to a standardized template the county procurement department uses to solicit bids on county projects.
“The council did not need to vote on the poll books,” Stenger wrote in a text message to the Post-Dispatch after consulting with aides and county legal counsel on the matter.
The “language was in the RFP erroneously,” he continued. “It’s the language used in RFPs to let the responders know that (bids are) subjected to a governing body’s approval, in this case that should have been changed to the Election Board only.”
Stenger noted the governor appoints the elections commissioners. The commissioners in turn select the agency directors, one from each major political party.
The county’s role is limited to funding the elections authority. It has no role in oversight or governance.
The March 11 contribution, Stenger insisted, therefore had no bearing on the commission decision to award the contract to a firm headed by Leiendecker.
“I don’t have an influence on that board. I don’t. That’s not my board. I didn’t appoint them. The governor did,” Stenger said in an interview Wednesday in his Clayton office. “I have no input about who gets appointed to the board. I had no input on the poll books.”
Stenger further distanced himself in a later interview, saying, “I didn’t even know the RFP was out there” when the Leiendecker donation landed in his campaign chest.
In an interview last week, Leiendecker said he understood how the timing of the contribution might “raise red flags.”
The KnowiNK owner said he wrote the check when the multiple tasks inherent to small business ownership prevented him from attending a Stenger fundraiser in March at a local country club.
“I don’t know why I made the contribution at that time,” Leiendecker said. “It could have been written weeks prior to that.”
Who should approve?
A donation made after bidding has opened on a major project troubles state Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin.
“It seems like a long pattern of perceived pay for play in the Stenger administration,” said Dogan, vice chairman of the House Elections Committee.
The perception surfaced just two weeks ago following an announcement about county plans to relocate three offices — including the Elections Board — to the Crossings at Northwest.
The poll books agreement “creates more distrust for a community that already has a lack of trust,” said term-limited state Rep. Rochelle Walton-Gray, a challenger to incumbent County Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-4th District, in the August primary.
“I’m shocked this is happening again,” said Harder. “Especially on the tails of how the Elections Board was handled.”
Harder dismissed the suggestion that the responsibility for approving the poll book contracts resided with the Elections Commission.
The county charter, he pointed out, specifies that the County Council sign off on all expenditures exceeding $25,000.
“It’s important to the community at large that this come before the council,” Harder said. “We should have had some say over the application of this project as well as the price tag.”
Dogan also questioned the wisdom of giving an appointed board the power to green light a $2 million contract.
“Common sense would tell you that when something like this goes out for bid, that approval should come from an elected authority, not an election authority. No one elected those guys,” the state representative said.
Fey said he advocated for the board of commissioners to act on election authority contracts after his appointment as an agency co-director in early 2015.
“It has become more common since I became a director,” Fey said during an interview in his Maplewood office last week. “It’s a priority of mine that the board display its independence as mandated by state law.”
August test for tablets
The May 10 decision to award the contract to KnowiNK capped a comprehensive review of the three poll books proposals (Konnech limited its bid to the “Election Management System”) by a six-member board comprising two Democratic election officials, two Republican elections officials, the director of county information technology and the director of county procurement.
St. Louis County is the last voting jurisdiction in the area to replace written logs with poll books.
Fey is an enthusiastic supporter of the technology that speeds the election day process by generating instantaneous voting tickets.
The digital system also reduces the amount of paperwork required to tally ballots and maintain voting records.
The addition of poll books, Fey said, will be of particular benefit in a county where a “complicated political geography” has created havoc in two recent elections.
St. Louis County will introduce the poll books in a pilot program at 50 precincts in the Aug. 2 primary. Polling places countywide will have the tablets on hand when voters arrive at the polls for the November presidential election.
The KnowiNK contract ends a two-year effort to upgrade the voting process in a jurisdiction that has become synonymous with election day problems.
A Dec. 16, 2014, agenda item asked that the County Council award a contract to Election Administrators, a South County vendor, for the “purchase and implementation of an electronic poll books system.”
Fey said KnowiNK finished second in the 2014 bidding competition.
The council tabled the measure over the objection of Charlie Dooley, attending his final meeting as county executive.
Stenger, who had upended Dooley in a bitter primary, voted with the majority in his last meeting as a member of council.
A month later, with the newly inaugurated Stenger sitting in Dooley’s seat, the council voted down the proposed Elections Administrators agreement.
Stenger said funding for the 2014 poll books proposal differed from the 2016 RFP because it asked the council to tap a special appropriation from the county budget to buy the tablets.
Elections Administrators surfaced again last March when the 12-year-old purveyor of “mobile election technology” was sold for $1 million.
The buyer: KnowiNK.
Leiendecker said the two companies had talked periodically for two years prior to the sale.
For KnowiNK, the delivery of poll books to St. Louis County marks another milestone in an entrepreneurial venture that began after Leiendecker left the St. Louis Elections Board in 2011.
The company now has business relationships with election authorities in 300 communities in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Locally, its clients include St. Louis and the counties of St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin.
Leiendecker credits ArchCity Grants and the St. Louis Economic Partnership for supporting the firm’s upward trajectory.