By Gloria Lloyd
The County Council could force the owners of the former Northwest Plaza to testify in front of council members about the county’s lease at the facility, which is estimated to cost county taxpayers between $50 million and $70 million over two decades.
Brothers and developers Robert and David Glarner were the largest campaign donors to former County Executive Steve Stenger, whose administration negotiated the lease at what is now called The Crossings at Northwest. Stenger pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges in May for pay-to-play contracts unrelated to the Glarners.
With Stenger likely headed to prison, the council Ethics Committee and its chairman, council Presiding Officer Ernie, Trakas, R-Oakville, is looking into the leases again. This time the panel is focusing less on how the county negotiated the lease and more on the Glarners, who could be the recipients of the first subpoena ever issued by the council in a bid to force them to testify.
The panel could recommend the council overturn the county contract if it finds fraud was involved, Trakas said.
He asked the Glarners to testify at an ethics hearing last week, but the brothers didn’t show or send an attorney. In response, the panel voted unanimously to recommend that the council issue subpoenas to both brothers to testify.
The council can issue subpoenas under the county Charter, but it appears that this is the first time it has ever issued one in the history of St. Louis County.
The three members of the panel only need one more vote from the current five-member council to make the majority needed to issue the subpoenas. Trakas promised to draft legislation for the council subpoenas by Tuesday — after The Call went to press.
The ethics panel is continuing its investigation into the leases that it started last year. At that time, the council questioned Stenger’s process negotiating the lease and voted to ask federal and state prosecutors for investigations into links between the 20-year deal and the Glarners’ campaign donations to Stenger.
Federal prosecutors asked for documents related to the brothers at the top of a subpoena issued to Stenger’s office in March, but have not charged anyone related to Northwest.
Stenger always said the lease was a good deal for the county, getting class-A office space at a competitive rate while revitalizing the former mall with thousands of new non-county jobs.
In response to Trakas’ request for certain documents, the Glarners delivered four large boxes of documents that Trakas estimated to total 7,000 pages just hours before the hearing.
In a letter to Trakas, the Glarners’ attorney David Richardson from Husch Blackwell said that Trakas’ requests for documents “clearly exceed the publicly stated authority and jurisdiction of the Ethics Committee” because the committee was intended to oversee elected officials and county workers.
“The Glarners are not elected officials nor county personnel. They are private individuals,” Richardson wrote. “Thus, the Ethics Committee does not have authority to compel the Glarners to appear or produce documents… Of course the committee’s charter is not unlimited and it does not include obligating private citizens or business owners to appear.”
With a court reporter on hand, Trakas dramatically called the Glarners to testify “for the purposes of public scrutiny and the record.” After silence and no Glarners appearing to sit at the seats set out for them, name plates and all, he said that their decision not to appear before the panel was a “flagrant, flagrant disregard of the people’s right to know” and the “public treasury” that is paying them millions of dollars.
Trakas said that he suspected the bank boxes of documents were intended to serve as a “narrative of cooperation,” but he dismissed the idea that the documents would give the committee what it needs to investigate.
“Without the Glarners, this committee cannot conduct a thorough and complete investigation,” he said.
“I echo your frustration that they will not show up today,” replied committee member and 5th District Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood.
“The day will come,” Trakas said.
A spokesman for the Glarners, Rich Chrismer, said in a statement that the brothers have “willingly supplied” additional information every time the county has asked for it.
“In advance of the committee meeting, the Glarners voluntarily produced over 7,000 pages of information even though the request far exceeds the purpose for the committee,” Chrismer said.
But Trakas said he needs to talk to the Glarners because of information he declined to share until they testify.
“I have credible evidence that I don’t want to compromise at this point,” Trakas said. “I want to get their version of it.”
He said he had not shared that evidence with federal prosecutors, who he believes are still investigating the Northwest lease. But he said the council’s inquiry was important because taxpayers need accountability whether or not prosecutors find criminal fraud.
“I have a responsibility to the taxpayers of St. Louis County to pursue reasonable questions regarding the legality of those leases, and I intend to do that,” he said.
The Ethics Committee is also lawyering up, with the council set to vote on hiring outside attorney Elkin Kistner of Bick & Kistner, who already represents the council in various lawsuits, including the one they initiated against Stenger.
Trakas said he could not rely on the county counselor’s office since former Deputy County Counselor Bob Grant, now a member of the county Charter Commission, helped negotiate the lease.
When Trakas requested Grant’s communications about the lease, former County Counselor Peter Krane denied the request.
If he has to, Trakas said he’ll subpoena the county counselor’s office for those documents too.
And just like with the Glarners, “If they choose to ignore the subpoenas, I’ll have them enforced,” he said. “I’m prepared to litigate.”