Post reporter found in contempt of county court

St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Joel Currier was not arrested for contempt of court (as in this protest file photo) but rather ordered to write letters of apology to the defendant, the police officer, prosecutor and public defender.

Photo by Lawrence Bryant

The Political EYE often has found Post-Dispatch reporters, editors and columnists in contempt of the black community and the standards of evidence-based journalism – especially in the paper’s dangerous addiction to huffing swirling rumors of alleged federal investigations into black public officials (for example, Charlie Dooley and Bruce Franks Jr.) that mysteriously never come to light outside of the pages of the Post or produce any indictments. Now one of its reporters has been found in contempt of court. The press release, crafted by a former Post editor and columnist – Christine Bertelson, director of Strategic Communications for St. Louis County Circuit Court – is so good it should be read in full.

“St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Joel Currier has been found in contempt of court for secretly eavesdropping outside a closed courtroom door and live tweeting expert testimony on the mental fitness of a defendant to stand trial for shooting a police officer in 2016. Circuit Judge Ellen Ribaudo’s contempt order notes that Currier’s actions may have jeopardized the defendant’s right to a fair trial,” Bertelson wrote in the voice of the court in a press release.

“Currier signed the contempt order May 29, admitting he willfully and intentionally violated Judge Ribaudo’s order, Missouri Supreme Court rules and the newspaper’s own professional standards on the use of social media. Currier also acknowledged that he had violated the court’s trust.

“On April 12, 2019, Judge Ribaudo held a hearing to determine whether her courtroom should be closed during testimony offered by two psychiatrists who separately had examined the defendant. At the hearing, Currier requested that the courtroom stay open, noting public interest in the case. The public defender argued that the mental health information be kept confidential. Judge Ribaudo closed the courtroom, citing state law (Missouri Revised Statute 552.020) prohibiting mental health information from being made public.

“Currier then left the hearing, but secretly stood outside the courtroom for hours, listening through a crack in the door and live tweeting what he was able to hear. Currier’s first tweet read: ‘After Judge Nellie Ribaudo closed courtroom to the public – i.e. one lone reporter – I spent most of afternoon with my ear glued to the door, live-tweeting details. (Glamorous life of a print journalist.) Wouldn’t have bothered tweeting had I been allowed to stay. #democracy,’ Currier wrote.

“’Although the press and the public have a right of access to criminal proceedings, that right is qualified and must be carefully balanced with a defendant’s rights to a fair trial,’” Judge Ribaudo wrote in her contempt order. ‘Not only does the court seek to correct the behavior of Mr. Currier, but the court has to work toward learning if Mr. Currier can be trusted to not violate future court orders and the Missouri Supreme Court Rules. Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.’ Unfortunately, the court cannot fully know how Mr. Currier’s violation of the court’s order may have on the underlying litigation which Mr. Currier tweeted about, nor can Mr. Currier rewrite history. In crafting this resolution, the court is keenly aware that it is unable to ensure the violations of Mr. Currier will not impact the ability for the parties to have a fair trial.’

“Although contempt of court is punishable by fine and/or jail time, Judge Ribaudo’s order only requires Currier to write letters of apology to the defendant, the police officer, prosecutor and public defender. Currier is also required to participate in an educational program with court staff about issues relating to freedom of the press and the right of parties to litigation to have a fair trial.”

There is a lot to unpack here.

The EYE is well aware of the gonzo journalistic credo that the reporter does anything to get the story, respecting no rule other than the public’s right to know. But this phrase stands out: “The public defender argued that the mental health information be kept confidential.” There already was a public defender in the court room, and that person was not a Post reporter. And that public defender rightly defended the privacy of his or her client’s mental health information.

The matter of mental health relates to the black public official most recently maligned in the Post on no firmer evidence than a rumor of a “federal investigation.” The Post editorial about Franks’ resignation from the Missouri House of Representative rejected Franks’ explanation of his action – that he was concerned about his mental health – and insinuated that he was really fleeing a “federal investigation,” with the only source being “city officials” who allegedly “alluded” to said investigation.

The EYE also really feels for the judge when she writes that “the court has to work toward learning if Mr. Currier can be trusted to not violate future court orders and the Missouri Supreme Court Rules. Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.” The EYE wonders the same about much reporting in the Post where race is a factor – and nearly all of the paper’s editorials, which Bertelson, now flacking for the 21st Judicial Circuit, edited from 1997-2007.

Currier probably won’t be able to follow in Bertelson’s footsteps in pushing out message for the court he treated so contemptibly, but she is a reminder of what a springboard to political jobs the Post newsroom and editorial board have become. She first left the newspaper in 2011 to work as a speechwriter and adviser to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. Other Posties who used the revolving door between the newspaper and paid political work include Jake Wagman, a Post political reporter who went on to do opposition research (hatchet jobs, for real) for many of the politicians he had covered. Paul Hampel covered Steve Stenger’s winning campaign for St. Louis County executive and then went to work for Stenger at a senior level. (Current County Executive Sam Page retained Hampel, which bolsters the EYE’s suspicion that Hampel ratted on Stenger rather than playing along with his fraud boss.) Koran Addo covered Lyda Krewson’s winning campaign for St. Louis mayor and then went to work for Krewson pushing out her messages. (Not that Addo covered that campaign corruptly; he did not.) Count former Post reporter Doug Moore (now pushing message for Page) among the region’s politicos who came from the newspaper, and the EYE surely is overlooking some. Former Post Publisher Joseph Pulitzer famously said that a “newspaper should have no friends,” but currently at the Post reporters and editors see a future employer, if not a friend, everywhere they report a political story.


Bill Miller pleads to fraud

Hampel appears to have kept his hands clean while Stenger did his dirty work, and the EYE suspects he passed leads to his former colleagues at Post and possibly to the U.S. attorney; his role in Stenger’s downfall may never be known publicly.

No such virtue for Stenger’s Chief of Staff William Miller, the son of a newspaper man, publisher of the Washington Missourian. Miller was one of the county staffers named in full in the Stenger indictment which, as the EYE pointed out at the time, meant the feds had the goods on him and it would only be a matter of time before he did a perp walk of his own. On May 31, Miller pleaded guilty today to one count of aiding and abetting honest services wire fraud/bribery. Reading the indictment of Stenger, it’s possible to conclude that the feds had more on Miller and that the single count reflects his cooperation with the investigation.

“In aiding and abetting Stenger’s criminal scheme,” the feds’ press release reads, “Miller communicated with, and personally met with Sheila Sweeney, then the CEO of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, in order to persuade and ensure that Sweeney and the Partnership Board, of which Miller was a member, awarded the lobbying contract to Company One, over a second lobbying firm which had also bid on the lobbying contract.”

The charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Restitution is mandatory. Like Stenger, his sentencing is scheduled for the fateful date of August 9.

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