In the earliest hours of Sunday, March 24, as far as the public knew, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger was a made man. An organization funded and driven by a billionaire was pushing for a statewide ballot initiative that would make him (in effect) mayor for life of a newly merged and expanded metro St. Louis, where he would rule over what is now the City of St. Louis even though none of what would then be the former city’s citizens had ever voted for him for mayor – or dog catcher, for that matter.
Two days later, retired financier Rex Sinquefield’s Better Together had dropped Stenger like the bad investment he was and is, deciding – in a sudden flourish of democratic spirit – that all of the people of the newly merged and expanded metro St. Louis should have an opportunity to elect their chief executive, rather than letting Sinquefield knight Stenger with the grinning support of what would be the last mayor of old St. Louis, Lyda “Let Clayton Have the city” Krewson.
Three days later, not only did Stenger no longer have Sinquefield by his side, but he suddenly also felt the need to have the notorious defense attorney to the stars Scott Rosenblum covering his suddenly exposed hindquarters. Among the many good jokes about Rosenblum, there is this one: If you wake up and there is a dead body in your house and you don’t know how it got there, call Ed Dowd. If you wake up and there is a dead body in your house and you do know how it got there, call Scott Rosenblum. The kicker to this joke is then-Gov. Eric Greitens called them both when he was under investigation by everybody but Robert Mueller and Gerard Carmody.
The very, very troubling news for Stenger is he is now ending up the butt of the jokes and stories that Greitens ended up in. The man who was supposed to be the unelected king of the metro St. Louis of the future is now scrambling simply to stay on the safe side of orange jumpsuits and nightly lockdowns. What happened?
What happened – or, at least, the only thing that we can be sure at this point has happened – is that Stenger got a bitter taste of his own medicine. His nemesis St. Louis County Council Chair Sam Page administered this dose when he leaked to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the fact that Stenger and others in his administration had been served with a federal subpoena. Page is a veteran political operator with an efficient subrosa media operation who knows that reporters feast on public corruption stories – or even the whiff of public corruption. So, though Sinquefield dropping Stenger and Stenger calling Rosenblum sound like terrible indicators of innocence, Stenger is not only innocent of any criminal charges, he has not even been charged with any crime. To twist an old phrase, you can subpoena a perfectly innocent ham sandwich.
But allegations of guilt – or even of criminal investigation – tend to appear incriminating to the public, and absolutely no one knows this better than the county executive who is now turning over emails, texts and tears to a federal grand jury. Stenger got where he is by doing to Charlie Dooley exactly what Sam Page is doing to him, and he weaponized the same news outlet that Page used against him, the Post-Dispatch.
Dooley, for the record, was never charged with any crime in connection to his service as county executive. Unlike Stenger – whose senior staff was subpoenaed along with him, according to Page – Dooley never even had key members of his senior staff served with a subpoena. According to Mike Jones, who was Dooley’s senior policy advisor when Stenger was leaking rumors of Dooley’s non-existent corruption (and is now a member of The American’s editorial board), he was never interviewed or called before a grand jury or had any records subpoenaed. The same, he said, was true of Garry Earls, Dooley’s chief operations guy, and his county counselor.
“You could not investigate the county for corruption at that time and skip over me and Gary and expect to get Charlie,” Jones says today. He would have told the Post then, but no one ever asked him. The Post ignored considerable evidence that Dooley was not the subject of any serious federal investigation of corruption and ran instead with stories – in at least one case, a front-page news report – where literally the tightest sourcing the paper had for the allegations was “swirling rumors.”
Then-Post reporter Paul Hampel reported that story. After his reporting – and companion editorials and endorsements directed by Tony Messenger, then leading the Post editorial board – got Stenger elected, Stenger hired Hampel to work for him. His title is “senior policy advisor,” Mike Jones’ former title, which seemed like an inside joke at the expense of Jones and this newspaper. The joke may be on Hampel now. His name has not been mentioned in connection to the subpoena, but thus far all we have to go on is Sam Page’s alleged memory of having seen the subpoena, what he told to the Post, and what the Post chose to report.
No one in the news or criminal justice businesses when Stenger was campaigning against Dooley doubts that Stenger was the source of the “swirling rumors” that Hampel and the Post reported as front-page fact. Stenger requested a meeting with The American’s managing editor during the campaign, and over lunch rumors of corruption in the Dooley administration swirled right out of Stenger’s mouth. He was told to provide documents and on-the-record sources, and the rumors stopped swirling. A federal prosecutor working in the office that is now investigating Stenger told The American at the time, off the record, that the office heard from Stenger about Dooley on a regular basis. If Stenger fed swirling rumors to this newspaper and to the Department of Justice, then it’s a very safe bet that he was Hampel and the Post’s deep (or, really, shallow) throat for those “swirling rumors” of corruption that the Post used to bring Dooley down and install Stenger in power.
Once Stenger was elected county executive, he quickly began arousing suspicion in the handling and awarding of contracts where key campaign donors ended up profiting handsomely. Tony Messenger – perhaps exorcising guilt for the jeremiad of editorials he wrote and approved to bring down Dooley based on Stenger’s claims – began writing a series of searing columns making Stenger look like a crook. The Post’s investigative team (perhaps exorcising guilt for past news coverage based on “swirling rumors” written by a reporter who landed a job with Stenger) did similar take-down pieces on Stenger and the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. It’s as if a loud cry went out – “clean-up in aisle Stenger!” – and the same news outlet that made the mess began to clean it up.
What happens next?
If Stenger is merely the victim of on-the-record news opportunism fomented by a political rival who has seen a subpoena, well, at least that is more than “swirling rumors,” which is all he could expel to hurt Dooley. (He also got his then-ally St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch to do a TV commercial accusing Dooley of corruption, which was itself just this side of criminal slander, given that if McCulloch had any credible evidence of corruption against Dooley he would have been compelled to file criminal charges, not film a commercial.) Page and the Post cost Stenger the good graces of Sinquefield and a cakewalk into unelected mayor of a new and expanded metro St. Louis, not to mention the expensive services of Scott Rosenblum and the notoriety of having had to call Scott about that proverbial dead body in the office.
If the subpoena is about to draw blood on Stenger, then the feds will seek his resignation early in the plea bargaining process. This is excellent procedure: When you find a crook in public office, first stop the bleeding by getting the crook out of public office. The EYE confesses that it would be a pleasure to see Stenger with his little banty rooster swagger doing a perp walk out of the office that he, McCulloch, the Post, and gullible readers and voters stole from Dooley.
If Stenger does resign then, according to the County Charter, “A vacancy in the office of county executive shall be filled by the council. The person so selected shall be a member of the same political party as the previous occupant. He shall hold office until January 1 following the next general election. A successor shall be elected at the next general election for the unexpired or the full term as the case may be.” The County Council would get to choose a Democrat to replace Stenger. Notably, unlike Stenger, who was a council member when he ran against Dooley, no council member opposed Stenger in the most recent primary. Maybe none of them wants the job. At least Sam Page currently is acting like someone who wants the job.
This unknown factor is especially juicy, since Better Together’s almost incredibly unwieldy plan for merging city and county governments calls for the existing mayor and county executive to agree on a transition plan. When Better Together officials were asked by The American’s editorial board what would happen if the existing mayor and county executive could not agree, they responded with a stunning silence that could only be translated as “but Lyda and Steve already agreed to all this [expletive].” Take Steve out of that agreement and who knows what we get, other than more versions of Better Together’s petition, which it keeps refiling as the public and press continue to find gaping holes in their plan.
As of now, Stenger is not worried about the keys to the kingdom. He is worried about the keys to where he sleeps at night, and whether those go into his pocket or into the pocket of an employee of the federal Bureau of Prisons.