Three days before he stunned a meeting of the Vinita Park City Council by tendering his resignation, Mayor Gerald French texted his recently vanquished electoral opponent, Ward 1 Alderman Brian Gremaud.
In the text, French urged Gremaud to attend the hastily called meeting, held Monday. "This will be VERY VERY important and will effect [sic] you tremendously," French wrote, adding, "I promise you will NOT regret coming."
French won the mayor's job on April 3, but city voters didn't know that their preferred candidate was also a convicted felon who had pleaded guilty to in 2004 to cashing counterfeit checks. Neither, it seems, did election authorities.
And that's a problem: Missouri law
expressly forbids felons from holding elected office. French's decade-old conviction should have barred him from running, much less serving as mayor.
When Gremaud showed up to the Monday night meeting, he says French handed him and the other aldermen a memo stating the mayor's intent to resign.
At the time, Gremaud says, "We didn’t know why."
In the days leading up to the meeting, Gremaud claims he had heard rumors that French was planning to ditch the job of leading the tiny municipality, which boasts a population barely cracking 2,000. French had previously worked as the city's public works director.
"I was guessing that he was leaving because the mayor's pay was cut in half," Gremaud says. One week prior, the board approved a measure to lower the mayoral salary, slashing it from $40,00 to $20,000. (The old salary was more than double what most mayors earned in similarly sized municipalities; it was so disproportionate, it attracted the ire of Fox2's Elliott Davis, who dedicated a March 2016 "You Paid For It" segment to the outsized salary
"I was thinking, he’s got a family, and he was going to want his public works job back," Gremaud recalls. But at the Monday night meeting, French didn't provide any clarification for his decision. In Gremaud's telling, French simply handed in his walking papers, ranted a bit, and left.
"He kind of blasted out the whole board," Gremaud says. "He marched out in a huff, and slammed two doors behind him."
It wasn't until the next morning that Gremaud says got a straight answer from French. Over text, Gremaud asked French point-blank why he'd resigned.
French replied, "I have a felony conviction. [It's] never my intention to hurt the city, residents or employees." French added that he didn't want to "fight it" and attract further embarrassment and media attention to the city.
"I thought it best to step down," French wrote, according to a screenshot of the conversation Gremaud provided to the RFT
According to a federal indictment, between July and August 2002 French had cashed three counterfeit checks for a total $24,800. Each of the three checks bore a "forged signature," the indictment alleged.
In February 2005, French pleaded guilty to a single count of passing a counterfeit check. He received a sentence of five year's probation and was ordered to pay restitution.
French's background wasn't a mystery to Gremaud, though he says that during the campaign he "wasn't certain" about the exact nature of French's criminal history. In any case, Gremaud chose not to air the allegation during the campaign, and the alderman ultimately lost his bid for mayor, 239-119.
Still, the day after the election, "Instead of calling him and congratulating [French]," Gremaud says, "I called the prosecuting attorney’s office."
Prosecutors apparently took note. On May 7, the Vinita Park Board of Aldermen received a memo from the city clerk: The St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney's Office was seeking French's election filing materials from the April 3 election.
What's next for Vinita Park? City ordinances stipulate that the current board president will take over until the aldermen can nominate a new mayor, Gremaud says. Another election won't be held until April 2019.
That would mean the mayorship will fall temporarily to current board president Celeste McGee, wife of former mayor James McGee
. In a Monday night text to Gremaud, French pleaded with the aldermen keep an eye on things at city hall — specifically, McGee.
"I'm praying you guys don't let McGee sit too long as acting mayor," French wrote. "The city can't take another McGee."
When Gremaud told him that she would only serve as acting mayor for two weeks, French replied, "That's still too long."
However, in speaking with RFT
, Gremaud also raises the possibility of stepping into the mayor's office himself.
"Can you resign when you never should have had the office anyway? That’s what I’m trying to wrap my head around," he says. "I’m not certain about what really is the appropriate avenue that we should take. It seems like common sense says that I would get the job, but I'm not certain what the law says."
Reached by phone yesterday, French declined to comment or confirm his resignation, instead directing all questions to his lawyer. French's lawyer did not respond to messages left at his office.
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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