St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell offered the weakest excuse imaginable for spending more than $30,000 in taxpayer money in his first nine months in office to treat himself and staff to lavish dinners and travel: that he did it “by the rules.”
That appears to be true. It wasn’t illegal when, for example, Bell and six staffers ordered up a $150 tempura lobster plate, a $74 ribeye, two $59 racks of lamb, multiple $9.50 bottles of sparkling water and other elegant goodies — courtesy of county taxpayers — during one $800-plus Miami meal alone.
But technical rule-following doesn’t make it OK that a prosecutor who swept into office as a reformer is spending two-thirds more on food and travel than his predecessor. Nor is it OK that his office dragged its feet for months in releasing those records when the Post-Dispatch’s Joel Currier requested them — and then left some of the spending records out.
As Currier reported last week, Bell’s office spent about $34,000 on food and travel alone from the time he took office in January through the end of September. That’s about a 65% jump from what Bell’s predecessor, long-time prosecutor Robert McCulloch, spent in the same period last year. Obviously, $34,000 isn’t a significant portion of Bell’s $11.9 million 2019 budget, but that isn’t the point.
Bell’s stunning upset over McCulloch in last year’s Democratic primary was driven by the public’s demand for reform throughout the criminal justice system in the wake of the Ferguson unrest. Bell has since made progress in reducing non-violent incarceration and seeking ways to address crime through intervention.
But reform doesn’t look quite so reformist when it comes with a side of tax-funded sea bass and veal chops. If there was nothing wrong with this kind of spending, why did Bell feel compelled to personally pay back to the county some of the expenses (including the aforementioned $816 Miami meal) after the Post-Dispatch asked about them?
“It just didn’t sit right, so I paid them,” Bell told Currier. Sorry, counselor, that explanation only works if it comes before someone is calling you out.
What’s even more troubling than the racks of lamb and the rest is that Bell’s office took three months to deliver the records after the Post-Dispatch requested them. And it left off about $2,100 worth, including the glaringly lavish Miami meal, which was finally revealed by a separate county office. Recall that Bell last year campaigned on a vow of transparency.
St. Louis County has certainly seen worse behavior from public officials — as federal inmate No. 48972-044, also known as former County Executive Steve Stenger, could attest. But Bell shouldn’t shrug this issue off. Appearances matter, especially for self-proclaimed reformers, and this one just plain looks bad.