South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

MSD board chair’s resignation called for by political activist

A local political activist wants a St. Louis attorney to resign from the Metropolitan Sewer District’s Board of Trustees, citing “ongoing” conflicts of interests.

University City resident Tom Sullivan has publicly called for MSD board Chairman John Goffstein to resign and filed a complaint against the attorney last week with the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel.

Goffstein repeatedly has violated the Missouri Supreme Court’s Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers, Sullivan said.

Under those rules, an attorney who holds public office should avoid situations where personal or professional interests “are or foreseeably could be in conflict with his or her official duties or responsibilities.”

“The basis of a conflict of interest is that you cannot serve two masters,” Sullivan told Goffstein during a July 9 MSD board meeting. “… You, Mr. Goffstein, have considerable conflicts of interest here.”

Sullivan’s complaint cites several occasions where he believes the MSD and Goffstein’s clients at law firm Bartley Goffstein crossed paths.

One of those instances occurred in March when the MSD board voted not to renew a contract with its auditing firm for the last four years, Hochschild, Bloom & Co. The board approved a five-year agreement with the firm in 2006.

Hochschild, Bloom is also the longtime auditor for the Mehlville Fire Protection District, with whom Goffstein has been at odds since 2005 as the attorney for Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. When new directors were elected to the fire district’s board and subsequently voted in March 2006 to change the district’s defined-benefit pension plan to a defined-contribution plan, Local 1889 filed a lawsuit.

The union and directors settled the dispute last December after the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed a 2007 St. Louis County Circuit Court’s ruling that dismissed the lawsuit.

The appellate court in 2007 also affirmed the circuit court’s dismissal of an earlier union lawsuit against the directors regarding disability benefit changes. Goffstein represented the union in both cases.

Last month, Robert Offerman of Hochschild, Bloom said Goffstein informed him the auditing firm’s contract with MSD wasn’t renewed because of its involvement with the fire district.

Goffstein thought the auditors should’ve been “more outspoken” when the directors contemplated changes to the pension plan, calling the firm “anti-union, anti-labor movement,” Offerman said in a statement.

Offerman said his firm has never been involved in the fire district’s “day-to-day decision making.”

Goffstein told the Call two weeks ago Offerman’s comments were “not accurate.”

Nevertheless, Sullivan accused Goffstein of “orchestrating the rejection” of the auditors’ contract.

For an ordinance to pass the MSD board, it must receive affirmative votes from two city-appointed trustees and two county-appointed trustees. When the Hochschild, Bloom contract came up for renewal in March, Goffstein requested the item be removed from the consent agenda and voted on separately, according to the approved journal. It was, and Goffstein, a city-appointed trustee, abstained from the vote.

But a city-appointed trustee seat was vacant at the time, and Sullivan claimed by abstaining, Goffstein killed the measure.

However, according to the minutes, only one county-appointed trustee, Ellen Harshman, voted in favor of renewing the contract along with the other city-appointed trustee, James Buford. The other county-appointed trustees, Bob Berry and Gerald Feldhaus, voted “no” and abstained, respectively.

In April, the board approved a motion to reconsider the ordinance, though Goffstein voted in opposition. The board then voted to table the issue until May; Goffstein again was opposed. The board took no action on the ordinance in May.

Goffstein was absent from the 2006 meeting at which an ordinance to establish the Hochschild, Bloom contract was first introduced. He later voted to approve it.

In 2007 and 2008, Goffstein abstained from the vote to introduce ordinances renewing the firm’s contract, but voted in favor of their final passage both years when the ordinances were included in the board’s consent agenda.

Sullivan’s complaint also mentions members of organizations that are Goffstein’s clients who were appointed to MSD entities. Among those is trustee Feldhaus, who was appointed in 2008 to the MSD board and is the executive secretary and treasurer of Goffstein’s client, the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council, according to the complaint.

Sullivan also lists “a member of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union appointed to the MSD Rate Commission, which considers rate increases … the pipefitters are a client of the Goffstein law firm.”

The complaint cites a dispute over an April repair of an MSD sewer line break in Chesterfield Valley. A district official allegedly informed the project’s contractor it needed to employ union pipefitters, or the district would hire another contractor.

MSD Director of Engineering Brian Hoelscher told Guy Karsten of contractor Karsten Equipment to use pipefitters for the repair work “because of political reasons,” according to statements provided by the SITE Improvement Association from Karsten. Karsten Equipment, which didn’t have a contract with the pipefitters union, continued and completed repairs to the sewer line, according to the statements.

Although the SITE Improvement Association, the organization representing Karsten’s, called the pipefitter dispute a “union jurisdictional issue,” Goffstein told the Call Friday it was an “occupational title issue.”

“It’s pretty much been resolved,” he said. “Both sides are admitting that when pressurized piping is involved, you’re supposed to pay the pressurized piping rate, which is the plumbing rate. The SITE organization has agreed to that, so it’s not really a jurisdictional dispute.”

Goffstein was appointed to the MSD board in 2005 by St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. He became chairman in April.

The attorney told the Call he hadn’t seen Sullivan’s “charges,” other than his “grandiose” description of them at the July 9 MSD board meeting.

“I’m not at all concerned about them,” Goffstein said.

Goffstein later said “appropriate staff officials” have reviewed and approved all of the MSD’s positions.

“None of us live in a vacuum, and we all have legitimate interests, sometimes competing interests, but you always try to do what’s right. All we want the agency to ever do is follow the law, it’s really about that simple,” he said. “When you’re a public official in a certain capacity, people feel like they can libel you and slander you and do whatever they want, but the fact of the matter is that all you want the agency you’re representing to do is the right thing, and that’s what this agency did … So it’s really a non-sequitur.”

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