A St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter attempted to shred mayoral candidate Tishaura O. Jones’ credibility last week for doing city-treasurer business with a convicted felon who supported her father’s campaign for comptroller in the 1990s. But community members fired back that the newspaper essentially attacked the “Ban the Box” movement – a fight, joined by Jones, to ensure that those who have paid for their crimes through jail time can re-enter the workforce.
“I guess they believe in life sentences,” retired St. Louis firefighter Winfield Scott wrote about the Post-Dispatch in a Facebook post.
On Friday, December 16, the Post-Dispatch chose to lead the entire width of its front page with a story by reporter Joe Holleman – who writes mainly chatty columns and soft human-interest articles – with a bold headline, “Back in business.” The story demonized Tishaura O. Jones for doing business with IFS Securities Inc., a black-owned Atlanta investment banking and brokerage firm where Craig Walker is vice president of public finance.
In 1993, Walker contributed $10,000 to Penny Alcott’s campaign in the race for St. Louis comptroller. Alcott was a “stalking horse” candidate, or someone who entered the race to split the opposition vote and aid Virvus Jones’ re-election as comptroller.
Virvus is Tishaura’s father. He is on hiatus as a member of The St. Louis American’s editorial board during the current mayoral race.
Walker served two years in prison for his campaign contribution – the first conviction of its kind in federal court history, he said. It’s also something that is not a crime by today’s federal-court definitions, and even Holleman’s fellow Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan recently noted that it was a common practice to contribute to faux candidates and no one else went to jail for it.
Holleman also highlighted that Virvus Jones spent a year in a federal prison on a different charge that came up during the investigation: tax fraud.
Tishaura O. Jones took to Facebook to respond to Holleman’s article.
“My father went to jail in the mid-1990s,” she wrote. “And after his return, it took my family years to rebuild our lives, because, contrary to popular belief, the whole family suffers when a family member goes to jail.
“Next news flash! My father is not running for mayor, I am. And my father doesn't run the treasurer’s office, I do.”
She explained that when she was elected as treasurer in January 2013, she banned the felon check box.
“I evaluate people on their ability to do the job,” she wrote, “and I evaluate proposals on their ability to save the city money… What I will tell you is that I believe in inclusion before exclusion.”
Since April 2015, IFS Securities has been part of underwriting more than $55 million in bonds for St. Louis Parking Fund, which Jones manages, Holleman reported. However, it is telling that he didn’t report that the St. Louis Board of Aldermen reviewed and approved bills that detailed these three bond issues for parking capital improvement projects and parking revenue refunding bonds. IFS was named in the exhibits of those bills.
That means that the bills went before the other major mayoral candidates: President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed, Alderman Antonio French and Alderwoman Lyda Krewson. None of them raised an issue or voted against the bills.
Alex McKenzie, president and CEO of IFS Securities, said the firm has participated in more than 700 transactions in 2016 as an underwriter. Ten of those were in Missouri with clients that included St. Louis County, the Missouri Development Finance Board and the cities of Columbia and St. Peters.
“We earned all the business that we participated in,” McKenzie said. “Any other assumption is misleading.”
McKenzie praised Tishaura O. Jones for her willingness to get the deal done within a “very volatile environment, considering the election and how bond prices move.” McKenzie added that Walker is properly registered and has a long, strong track record in public finance.
“It takes a strong character to come back from a past, and the industry gave Craig a second chance a long time ago,” McKenzie said. “When IFS looked at Craig, it was based on an individual who had earned the right to work.”
Walker told The American that he has worked with the company to save taxpayers throughout the country millions of dollars.
“That creates opportunity,” Walker said. “Twenty-one years ago is a long time in the past. I’ve been a different person for a while. I’ll just let my professional results speak for themselves.”
When Holleman called Tishaura O. Jones for the Post story, she said he only asked her one question: whether or not she knew that Walker was a convicted felon who had connections to her father.
She said she repeatedly told Holleman that Walker has passed strict federal guidelines and was certified to do his job.
“It all boils down to a simple virtue, forgiveness,” Tishaura Jones posted on Facebook. “We either believe that people have paid their debt to society and deserve a second chance, or we don’t. It’s as simple as that.”
Tishaura O. Jones told the American that IFS brought her ideas on refinancing the city's debt that saved the city over $6 million.
“That savings has allowed us to invest in children and families and the future of the North/South MetroLink line,” she said.
Her office’s financial advisor recommended that they choose three investment firms to work with on any future refundings, she said. If they need to act quickly, they will have an investment bank already vetted. The advisor evaluated and presented the banks that had the best bids and lowest fee structures, which included IFS, she said.
All three investment firms – Stifel, IFS and Siebert Brandford Shank – have brought forth ideas on ways to lower outstanding debt. Some of the other banks’ ideas would have cost the city money or the city didn’t qualify in the end, she said. However, the banks all participated on the bond deals that IFS brought forth on some level.
In April 2015, IFS partnered with Stifel, a St. Louis-based investment firm, on $6.44 million in subordinated parking revenue bonds for a capital improvement project, new parking meters.
In December 2015, IFS partnered with Siebert on $36.41 million in subordinated parking revenue refunding bonds. And in November 2016, IFS was the sole underwriter on $12.365 million in parking revenue refunding bonds.
Jared Boyd, Tishaura Jones’ chief of staff, said before they went forward with the IFS bond deals, they compared the underwriter fees to other bonds in the city. Underwriters get paid based on the size and complexity of the deal. But even though the deals were more complicated than some of the others in the city, the underwriters still earned lower or comparable fees, Boyd said.
‘It’s about a dog whistle’
Marie Ceselski, 7th Ward Democratic committeewoman, wrote in a blog post that the article’s headline could have been completely different and more truthful, such as “Underwriter hired by city treasurer saves city $6 million” or “City treasurer bans the box, a success story.”
Ceselski also didn’t understand why a “human-interest columnist” was writing this particular story.
“I was confused because the writer was not a St. Louis Post-Dispatch business, public finance or crime reporter,” she wrote. “Something big going on in the treasurer’s office certainly should have an expert assigned to it. But that was not the case.”
Ceselski accused the Post of issuing a “dog whistle” in its handling and placement of the story, a reference to barely covert racism in coverage of race.
“There is so much more to this story about the treasurer and the banker,” Ceselski wrote. “But it isn’t about financial wrong doing or ethics. It’s about a dog whistle. Hear/see the name ‘Virvus Jones.’ Hear/see the word ‘convicted.’ Vote against that even if you are voting against your own self-interest. The real story here is that in order for Lyda Krewson to be elected, enough of you who want change have to be swayed to stay at home or vote for a candidate other than Jones.”