The Post-Dispatch’s continued reporting on the real, actual, unquestionable and verified federal investigation into St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and his administration’s awarding of county contracts makes a number of things unmistakably clear.
Investigations look incriminating in newspapers. A federal investigation can ruin your career and life long before you are convicted or even charged with anything – if the unscrupulous news media catches wind (or even whiff) of it and decides to chase the feds down their paper trail while they are trying to build their case. The Post has “a source” for the subpoenas and documents the feds are sending to St. Louis County Counselor Peter Krane. To even be named in a subpoena or official letter by a federal prosecutor trying to build a case looks incredibly incriminating to the general public unaware of how wide a net an enterprising prosecutor will cast once blood in the water has been scented.
Federal prosecutor Hal Goldsmith — a dogged prosecutor if ever there was one — sent Krane a letter on April 4 that the Post reported on April 8 (this source leaks fast!) naming just about everyone connected to Stenger except his grandmother and elementary school choir teacher. Of course, almost all of these still uncharged and innocent people “could not be reached immediately for comment,” which appears — but only appears — to confirm that they are guilty of something.
This dangerous kind of journalism can be entertaining if you suspect the target is, in fact, a crook. But it’s reckless and irresponsible in many ways and, in many ways, does more damage than good — including to the investigation itself. The person who hates what the Post is doing almost as much as Stenger and his associates is Goldsmith. Prosecutors, like the assassins they resemble in method, prefer stealth and silence until they strike. And a subpoena or letter to a lawyer is not a strike. The indictment is the strike.
The Post is guilt-tripping. The Post in general and Tony Messenger in particular are really, really ashamed that they got Stenger elected in the first place by doing this exact same thing to then-County Executive Charlie Dooley – but with no harder evidence than “swirling rumors” that swirled out of the mouth of Stenger himself, a known rival to Dooley at the time. The Post made Dooley look as guilty then as they are making Stenger look now.
There is a big difference, though — Stenger’s enemy (the “source”) has way better ammunition against Stenger than Stenger had against Dooley. Though the EYE has its own reliable source who said Stenger frequently contacted the feds with tips on Dooley, Stenger never had subpoenas or letters on Department of Justice letterhead that showed an obvious, ongoing investigation into alleged corruption in the Dooley administration. “Swirling rumors” was enough for the Post to bring down the county’s first black chief executive.
Being the subject of rumors while black. Even Stenger’s elementary school choir teacher could figure out that the Post has a lower threshold of evidence against black public figures than white public figures when it comes to making them look like a crook before any charges have even been filed. For all the rumors that Stenger, Messenger and the Post swirled, no charges were ever filed against Dooley. He left public office for the golf course, not the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Where is Paul? As director of the Post’s editorial page in its long editorial assault on Dooley based on “swirling rumors,” Messenger has a lot of muck on his hands that he has been cleaning off by reporting relentlessly on Stenger’s administration once he helped Stenger get elected. The paper’s managing editor and news director have equivalent amounts of muck they have been cleansing.
However, the then-Post beat reporter that goosed up those “swirling rumors” into front-page so-called news stories, Paul Hampel, is no longer on staff to wash his mucky hands in ink. Rather outrageously, he was hired by Stenger at a senior policy position after Hampel’s reporting helped get Stenger elected. Where is Hampel in all of this? He has not been in the Post’s negative reporting on the Stenger administration. Why?
There are a few obvious explanations. One is that Hampel has not done anything unseemly – or much of anything at all – while on staff for Stenger so his name has not come up in the investigation. Another is that Hampel’s former colleagues discretely are leaving his name out of their reporting on the federal subpoenas and letters, not wanting to call the wolves to the door of a former colleague (and a generally well-liked guy). A third is that Hampel was shocked, once hired by Stenger, to learn that he had been duped (in his quest for front-page story placement) by a con artist and crook and has turned on Stenger. While Hampel is not the Post’s “source” for these federal subpoenas and letters (that deep throat already has revealed himself), could he be one of Goldsmith’s sources telling the prosecutor where to dig? Is Hampel cleansing the muck from his hands in a way that will hurt Stenger far worse than swirling headlines?
“Neither confirm nor deny.” To be sure, Goldsmith will never confirm nor deny his sources unless he needs to take their deposition or call them to the witness stand. Some of the feds’ best sources go down in history (not to mention its rough draft, journalism) as John Doe or Jane Doe. That is precisely what makes the game that news media like the Post play with covering federal investigations, alleged or actual, before they draw blood so dangerous.
The people who really know what is going on, federal prosecutors and investigators, can’t and won’t say anything about their investigation unless and until they are filing charges. Indeed, they should not, because loose lips sink the ships of investigations. This built-in and well-known dynamic allowed Stenger (and his then-ally, then-St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch) to play the Post to hurt Dooley with rumors of corruption all the way up to the election where Stenger beat Dooley. The feds never denied any investigation. That kept the rumors swirling.
In Stenger’s case, it’s not rumors that are swirling. It’s subpoenas and letters on DOJ letterhead. Stenger must feel like someone who got away with being a bully on the basketball court in elementary school suddenly bounced a basketball on a court inside a federal penitentiary. This is what it looks like when shit gets real, little Steven.
Why hide Sam’s rock-throwing hand now? It’s a wonder why this fast-leaking “source” is no longer being identified as St. Louis County Council Chair Sam Page in continuing Post reports on the federal investigation into Stenger. Page was the named source for the subpoena of Stenger that the Post reported on. After he threw the biggest rock in plain sight, why are Page and the Post hiding his hand now?
Did Goldsmith get word to Page to stop screwing with (and possibly screwing up) his investigation? Did Page decide it is wise to at least try to disguise the potential damage he is doing to a federal investigation because it’s not a great idea to make an enemy of a federal prosecutor, especially when you hold public office yourself? Did the Post realize they are doing it all over again and decide that they don’t want to do it all over again (not all of it)? Stenger was the Post’s (very feeble) source to bring down Dooley and get Stenger elected. Do they want to try to hide that Page is their source for bringing down Stenger for fear that Page would want the County Council he chairs to appoint him to succeed Stenger if Stenger resigns?
It’s tempting to say, at this point, when Stenger resigns. That’s the way this dangerous, dirty game is played: guilty before even charged; convicted of being investigated, even if only allegedly.