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

Trakas can stay on County Council, didn’t violate Charter, judge rules

Ernie Trakas talks at the Concord-Lemay/Gravois/Jefferson Republican Club meeting. Photo by Jessica Belle Kramer.

Ernie Trakas talks at a Concord-Lemay/Gravois/Jefferson Republican Club meeting in July. Photo by Jessica Belle Kramer.

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor

Councilman Ernie Trakas did not violate the county Charter with his work as an attorney for school districts and can stay in office, a St. Charles County judge ruled Tuesday.

6th District Councilman Trakas, R-Oakville, faced a rare quo warranto case that could have resulted in him being forced out of office if Judge Daniel Pelikan had agreed with the recommendation of a special prosecutor, St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar, that Trakas  violated the county Charter.

Lohmar asked for Trakas to be removed due to his work as an independently contracted attorney for three outstate public school districts, which Lohmar said counted as employment for other public governmental entities. The county Charter appeared to ban that for council members as a conflict of interest, at least until voters approved an amendment defining employment as only full-time work.

But Pelikan said in his ruling that, since the Charter did not define “employment” at the time the framers developed it in the 1970s, he had to turn to state law. And Missouri law did distinguish at the time between full-time employment and work as an independent contractor.

The Charter states, “No member of the council shall hold any other office or employment under the United States, the state of Missouri or any municipality or political subdivision thereof. When any member accepts such office or employment, his office as member of the council shall thereby be vacated.”

At the case’s only court hearing June 28 in Pelikan’s courtroom, Trakas’ attorney Jonathan Marks and a St. Charles County assistant prosecutor agreed in a hearing that lasted less than five minutes that there would be no trial in the case and arguments could be made in briefs due back in 30 days.

At a June 14 meeting of the Tesson Ferry Township Republican Club, Trakas said his work as an attorney for school districts is no different than a baker or HVAC contractor because he receives a 1099 form for taxes, not a W-2.

“We’ll see, a judge will decide,” Trakas said. “I think most people in this room and probably in this city would understand that when you’re  an attorney representing a client, you’re not employed by that client. That client doesn’t control the terms of your employment…. School districts don’t pay any benefits to me. I’m strictly an attorney working as an independent contractor, no different than if I was a baker who baked cakes for Mehlville for graduation.

“Under Mr. (Prosecuting Attorney Robert) McCulloch’s theory, because I did that, I could not serve on the council. If I was a heating and air-conditioning contractor who happened to do work at Lindbergh, that would preclude me from sitting on the council.  It’s as absurd as it sounds, but we’ll see what happens. It’s really more about politics than it is about a legal issue.”

When McCulloch recused himself from the case in December because the council oversees the budget of his office and had recently voted to take back his pension raise, Lohmar took over.

Trakas has accused St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger of being the mastermind behind both the pending court action and an earlier recall effort, both of which Stenger has denied.

“I’ve been a pinata from day one, and I’ve been a target of Steve Stenger from the start,” Trakas said. “Why? Because I opposed (the trail at) Cliff Cave Park. That was day one, Jan. 3, 2017. First council meeting I was ever at… It went downhill from there.  But now the gloves are off, and I’m really OK with that. I don’t lose one wink of sleep over it. Ask my wife (former Mehlville Board of Education member Lori Trakas), she’ll tell you. That’s just the way that politics in the 21st century is.”

So far, Trakas said his campaign has spent more than $10,000 and rising in legal fees to defend the case.

After the June hearing, Lohmar said he hasn’t spoken with Stenger in more than a year, and only spoke to McCulloch about how to transport documents from the case from McCulloch’s office to his office in December.

“Do I have any vested interest in the outcome?” Lohmar said. “Absolutely not… Obviously I’m familiar with the political histories that are going on across the river, but once I was appointed the special prosecutor, nobody talked to me.”

As for McCulloch, Trakas told the Tesson Ferry GOP that he loves telling the story of the leadup to McCulloch’s recommendation that a judge look into whether he should be removed from office. The prosecutor said that a television reporter alerted him to the possible violation.

But Trakas links it to the pension vote just days earlier.

“Half a dozen times before that vote, Bob McCulloch called me personally, each time lobbying for that vote,” Trakas said. “In not one of those conversations did he ever raise the question of whether or not I should be on the council. Not once.

“Within 10 days after that vote, he had requested a special prosecutor — you draw your own conclusions. The facts speak for themselves.”

Marks spoke for the first time about Trakas’ case after the hearing and said he believes case law is on his client’s side.  Rulings on similar issues have come down on opposite sides in appellate courts across Missouri, he said.

“The one most similar to Ernie’s situation is case law very favorable to his fact pattern,” Marks said.

That case is McCulloch vs. Hoskins, in which McCulloch unsuccessfully petitioned for Berkeley Mayor Ted Hoskins to be removed from office in 1998.

That case has a connection to Trakas’ case beyond just case law: Hoskins’ attorney in that case, Elbert Walton Jr., is the father of Trakas’ ally on the council, Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack.

“There’s a similar fact pattern here,” Marks said. “It’s a little bit different here because Ernie is an attorney and knows very well the rules of professional conduct and knows not to violate those rules.”

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