While it has been impressive to see a wide and diverse group of citizens rise to the defense of St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on his spending tax dollars on lobster tails and racks of lamb for staff, we would like to emphasize Bell’s mea culpa and urge him to go much further in the direction of self-correction. While he has broken no laws, his errors in judgment could be damning politically if not addressed publicly.
“I am not about to call this a witch hunt,” Bell posted on social media. “The criticism is fair, and I have tried to be as transparent as possible.” He claims to have immediately reimbursed the county for that $800 tab for lobster and lamb (in Miami, Florida, no less – more than 1,225 miles away from the county seat of Clayton) and to have learned an expensive lesson. “I will do a better job of being more deliberate with communicating ‘why’ we are doing what we are doing going forward,” he pledged.
We believe much more is needed from Bell to disarm his many enemies and skeptics and to fully restore public trust in his judgment and ability to run a powerful public office. We believe Bell should both call for a county audit of his spending since taking office and revise county guidelines for staff expenditures to a more stringent standard, then publish that standard and hold himself and his staff responsible to it.
As for the reasoning Bell supplied to justify racking up $30,000 in expenses in 10 months – that he was building the partnerships needed to collaborate on new programs and grant opportunities – that sounds like special pleading. One can build partnerships without fine dining. And it is beside the point to measure his excessive spending against the money he is saving the county by reducing the jail population. The public wants to see our money that Bell saves with his creative and compassionate policies reinvested in the public welfare, not in lobster and lamb.
We believe in Wesley Bell now as much as or more than we did when we heartily endorsed his election. We believe that he has the political skill and collaborative intelligence necessary to bring real, badly needed change to the criminal justice system in St. Louis County. Further, we believe that his success in this position could pave the way for more success, both in the administration of criminal justice by others in this region (and beyond) and in Bell’s own future as a political leader. However, if he does not clean up the mess he has made with over-the-top spending of public money – promptly and publicly – and stop giving his many enemies such easy ammunition, then he will not have a long enough political career to bring lasting change or to seed future success.