County Council will continue to fight for federal subpoena

New 5th District Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, center, listens to members of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership board testify Jan. 15, along with 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, left, and 7th District Councilman Mark Harder. Photo by Erin Achenbach.

By Erin Achenbach
Staff Reporter
eachenbach@callnewspapers.com

Denied access to the federal subpoena served on the county, the County Council will continue fighting to see the document.

In its first meeting since news broke last week about a federal subpoena served to St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger’s office, the County Council declined at a hastily called meeting March 28 to vote to hire outside counsel to respond to the request.

Council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, called for a special meeting during the council’s planned spring break to discuss how the council would deal with the subpoena, which he said seeks records from Stenger and members of his staff as well as the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, and whether or not the council should seek its own private attorneys. The meeting, held at the unusually late time of 8 p.m., was called the day before.

Only Page has seen the subpoena, but he doesn’t have a copy. Council members expressed their frustration on why they couldn’t see the subpoena to Deputy County Counselor Micki Wochner, who did not bring a copy of the subpoena to the meeting. County Counselor Peter Krane was out of town.

“You saw this notice when it was posted, yes?” questioned 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville. “You didn’t conclude in any way, shape or form that you might be questioned as to the contents of or access to the subpoena so we can review it?”

Wochner countered that she had not formed an opinion on if the County Council was entitled to see it but mentioned that Krane was in discussions with an assistant U.S. attorney on what would be appropriate.

But after the meeting, the council has not given up trying to see the subpoena. Trakas told The Call that the council would most likely hold another closed session this week to discuss the subpoena. He said that he didn’t believe there was anything in the subpoena that would prohibit its release or disclosure to both County Council members and the public, adding the lawyers were “playing hide and seek” with it.

“The media would love to get a copy and we’d love to make that happen, but we’re going to have another meeting with them probably this week would be my guess,” said Trakas. “They’ll either let us see it or they won’t… I want a copy, I want every council person to have a copy and I want to be able to give you a copy.”

Third District Councilman Tim Fitch, R-Fenton, said at the March 28 meeting that he heard that department heads had the subpoena and questioned how many other people had access.

That was incorrect unless the U.S. attorney’s office gave it to someone else, Wochner said. Her office had assured federal prosecutors that they would not have interference from other departments or offices other than compliance as needed with the subpoena.

“The assistant U.S. attorney has been quite clear that he wants a center point of contact, and we assured him that we would not have interference from any department or office,” Wochner said.

She also noted that when the process server came to serve the subpoena, rather than the normal procedure of serving County Clerk Genevieve Frank, the U.S. attorney had specifically instructed the process server to serve the subpoena to Krane.

The agenda of the special meeting called for a closed session on whether or not to retain outside counsel, supposedly at the “request from the county counselor.”

But before going into closed session, Wochner said she was confident that her office could respond to the subpoena without help.

“Our office is certainly prepared to go forward and respond to this request without the hiring of outside counsel,” she said, adding that the request for outside counsel was more of a suggestion. “I believe that there was a conversation that perhaps there are some people who aren’t confident that the county counselor’s office would be neutral in regards to the branches of government and our departments and that it was offered as a way to make some people feel more comfortable. But our office is certainly prepared to provide it.”

Following the closed session, Page said that no vote had been taken on seeking outside counsel in the closed session, but he declined to answer any further questions, about the subpoena or anything else: “I believe that I will stand on what I said so far this week, and I won’t have any other comments tonight.”

Page said that the subpoena was broad and wide-ranging, looking into county contracts, particularly the new North County Government Center at Northwest Plaza  in St. Ann and a land deal in Wellston involving Stenger donor John Rallo, as well as Stenger’s phone records, text messages, emails and other communications with people including current and former county employees. The subpoena named seven different Stenger staffers, Page said, although he could only recall the names of Lance LeComb and Patti Hageman, two of Stenger’s newest hires.

Stenger himself has been largely silent on the subpoena, other than issuing a statement that said, “We intend to provide all the information requested and cooperate fully.”

Fitch told The Call that if there was a vote in the closed session last Thursday to hire an outside attorney, he would have voted against it.

“It was the right decision, I was not in favor of hiring outside counsel,” he said. “We have the county counselors who are capable, and there’s no use to spend tax dollars.”

Fitch, who retired in 2014 as the police chief for St. Louis County, recommended when he was chief that federal prosecutors conduct investigations into the new county crime lab and an embezzlement in the Department of Public Health under former County Executive Charlie Dooley.

Because federal investigations can last a year or more, Fitch said that the council needs to let it play out on its own.

“We cannot continue in this mode for another year. We have some huge budget decisions that have to be made in the next few months. We need to focus on that,” he said. “Some council members focus on the turmoil as opposed to what we need to do to move the county forward.”