Removing the purveyors of corruption from a public body is never in and of itself enough. The conditions that allowed corruption to flourish in the first place also have to be addressed. That’s why the St. Louis County Council’s unanimous vote last week establishing a hotline for government whistleblowers and protecting them from reprisal is such a valuable move toward restoring trust in a government wracked by the crimes of former County Executive Steve Stenger.
Stenger resigned in April and subsequently pleaded guilty to three federal counts related to steering contracts to campaign donors. The investigation that led to Stenger’s indictment revealed that he threatened to fire employees who refused to aid in those schemes. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine Stenger could have committed those crimes without being able to coerce employees into silence or reluctant cooperation.
As the sponsor of the whistleblower bill, council member Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, told the Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Kohler, “We need to be able to proactively receive information from any source who feels like our procurement process is not being followed, or they are being politically pressured into making business decisions that are a violation of our ordinances or are unethical.”
The measure is modeled in part after Missouri’s Whistleblower’s Protection Act of 2017, which addresses only the operations of state government. In the county version, reports from employees of questionable behavior would go to both the County Council and the county executive, allowing for separate, parallel investigations. That’s a crucial check, because it prevents any one person or governmental office from having sole access and potentially squashing the allegations.
The measure also sets up a hotline, to be operated by an independent third-party entity, that county employees can use to report illegal or unethical behavior by other employees and elected officials. Under the ordinance, any county-employed supervisor who retaliates against a whistleblower could be subject to fines and jail time.
Stenger will soon start a 46-month prison term for his crimes, which not only cost the county significant money and undermined public trust in government but also put county employees in the position of having to choose between doing the right thing or keeping their jobs.
Multiple county employees were “forced to make decisions that we know were unethical, and maybe in some cases illegal, at the request of the former county executive,” Fitch said at an earlier meeting discussing the measure. Those employees “had no recourse to go anywhere to report what they were being forced to do without the possibility of losing their jobs because they were appointed by the county executive.”
Because of this measure, county employees in the future will be able to confront that kind of coercion when it arises, and protect the interests of the people they actually work for — the public.