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Why it took years for authorities to investigate St. Louis’s County Executive

ST. LOUIS - The U.S. Attorney`s office Tuesday demanded thousands of documents and text messages from the County Executive`s office. A grand jury will now look at potential ties between Steve Stenger's campaign coffers and government contracts.

Many of the contracts date back years and were approved by the County Council.  Some on the council later claimed they were tricked.

The allegations are contained in a June 12, 2018, St. Louis County Ethics Committee report.  The report says the council was “misled” that the Northwest Crossing lease (at former Northwest Plaza) would save $10m.  It adds that County Executive Steve Stenger “...falsely claimed there was competitive bidding...” before the lease deal was approved.  It alleges Stenger arranged for the deal while North West Crossing developers contributed hundreds of thousands to his campaign coffers.

The latest County calculations show the lease will cost taxpayers a minimum of $58m. 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas said that’s “…more than enough - in fact, three times enough to build its own buildings.”

Trakas wasn't on the council when it was approved.  Watchdog Tom Sullivan warned about the deal in 2015.  He said, “I did everything but stand on my head, but they weren`t interested in listening and went ahead and approved it. It was approved by almost every member of the council, except Mark Harder.”

Councilman Harder declined to comment.  Trakas said this on his behalf – “I think given his real estate background (he) looked at that lease and understood that this is not a lease that any business would enter into.”

Trakas heads the Ethics Committee that initiated the current Federal investigation.  He added, “As you know I`m an attorney and I can tell you it`s the most onerous lease I have ever seen.”

I asked if the Council should share in the blame.  Trakas answered, “You have to remember, they`re operating on information provided to them by the County Executive in terms of the necessity of the lease, the benefit of the lease, the savings from the lease, all of that information was not accurate.”

He says that delayed the council`s understanding of Stenger`s dealings.  Once they caught on, meetings began to explode in August 2017 over a different project.

In the meeting, Stenger laughed as he spoke to Chairman Sam Page “... The sun was in your eyes, so you have a hard time with it.”  After boos from the audience, Stenger added, “Look we have to take ownership of what we`ve done.  You voted for it.  You were the proponent of it and the council voted for it unanimously.”

Council Chairman Sam Page was moving to delay construction on an ice complex at Creve Coeur Lake Park, in which Page claimed Stenger misled the council.

In a heated exchange, Stenger said, “Oh!  You were not a proponent of this?!”

Page said, “I supported it.  I voted for it and I own that vote but...”

Stenger interrupted, “You moved it.”

Page answered, “But I did not bring this to this council.  I did not lobby my peers to pass this.”

Stenger said, “You most certainly did.”

The project moved, and Page joined three other council members investigating the County Executive and sending their findings to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Councilman Trakas said, “Obviously what we sent them gave them pause and they pursued it and I`m glad they did.”

Today was the federal government’s deadline for the County Executive`s office to hand over information a grand jury will now review.

Thursday, in the Fox Files, we’ll reveal a stunning allegation, how a county employee says he was tricked into signing a contract he knew nothing about.

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