Every year on the Friday before Mardi Gras, politicos flock by the dozen to see and be seen at the St. Louis Mayor's Ball, held at city hall downtown.
A select few kick off the revelry seven blocks away, as the guests of Rod Forth, region vice president of governmental affairs for the Anheuser-Busch Companies.
"Please join us for a pre-reception in the Presidential Suite of the Renaissance Grand Hotel," reads this year's invitation from Forth to employees of A-B, a major sponsor of local Mardi Gras merriment. "Several members of the Board of Aldermen will be there."
And indeed Stephen Gregali (14th Ward), Jennifer Florida (15th Ward) and Dorothy Kirner (25th Ward) were among Forth's guests on February 24.
So was Dave Drebes, editor and publisher of the local political tabloid Arch City Chronicle. Drebes, who also writes a weekly column for the St. Louis Business Journal, referenced the soirée in the March 3 Business Journal. Noting that pomp reigns as power wanes among city lawmakers, Drebes described "whizzing through stoplights" with three (unnamed) aldermen in a motorcade from the hotel to city hall as sirens and flashing red lights attached to the caravan's lead car helped clear a path through traffic.
Gregali, Florida and Kirner say the February 24 motorcade was orchestrated and led by the private security firm Special Services Inc. The aldermen and Drebes followed in Gregali's Mercury minivan, with Gregali behind the wheel. The aldermen say they don't know who else was in the procession.
Drebes declines to elaborate on the evening's events other than to imply that his column didn't sit well with some of those mentioned. "I've already eaten this shit once, and I don't want to eat it again," he says.
"We just ended up being sandwiched in the Special Services motorcade," says Florida, noting there were no lights or sirens in Gregali's minivan.
Kirner, who says she has availed herself of the Special Services escort to the Mayor's Ball for the past four years, dismisses the perk as "no big deal." Recounts Kirner: "[Drebes] got scared to death. I'm going: 'What's the matter with you?' He goes: 'We're running red lights.' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'We're gonna get killed!' And I just looked at him and I go, 'Oh, come on.'
"If [the public doesn't] want us to do it again," Kirner adds, "put that in writing, and we won't."
As a matter of fact, it has been put in writing.
According to Chapter 17 of the St. Louis City Revised Code, "[T]here may not be on the street any vehicle displaying any white or colored light, flashing or nonflashing except as provided in this chapter." The city code authorizes emergency use of lights for ambulances, police cars and fire trucks, as well as vehicles used by a public utility, an authorized tow-truck company or the medical examiner.
"Is this make-believe, or is this true?" St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department spokesman Richard Wilkes inquired when told of the incident. Wilkes then referred to the city and state laws that prohibit anyone but emergency-vehicle drivers to ignore traffic laws and deploy flashing lights and sirens on public streets. The only exceptions, according to the police department, would be motorcades for the governor, the president or other officials. Funeral motorcades may use yellow or purple flashing lights to signal caution but not to violate traffic laws.
"It's inappropriate, and lawmakers ought to know better," says Jim Shrewsbury, president of the Board of Aldermen. Noting that high-speed police chases are a touchy subject in the city, Shrewsbury who wasn't invited to A-B's fête but attended the Mayor's Ball with his wife and daughter adds that "every day we debate whether or not police officers ought to travel at high speeds. This is clearly a situation where you're disobeying local traffic laws, and it creates a public danger."
Special Services president Patrick McCarthy, a former police officer, declines to discuss the motorcade from the Renaissance Grand to city hall and would not confirm that his company was involved. "We don't discuss our operational techniques or details," he says.
All three aldermen say they assumed the practice was legal and compared it to previous motorcades in which they participated. Florida and Gregali, who describe themselves as personal friends of McCarthy, say they've driven Special Services-owned cars in Mardi Gras and St. Patrick's Day parade details over the past several years, on a volunteer basis. "Never been paid by Special Services," says Gregali. "I kind of know the business a little bit and just help them out."
"Interesting, very interesting," observes Leo Fincher, owner of rival local firm ACS Guard Service.
Fincher says that before being licensed, private security personnel must pass a battery of tests and a background check administered by the city police department. Security firms are permitted to deploy flashing lights only when responding to an emergency on private property.
Fincher says competitors are "notorious" for improperly using the lights to clear traffic on public streets. "It's not something I would do," he says. "As a business owner, my liability is really hanging out on something like that. I don't know that my insurance company would continue insuring me if I was ferrying people around for no emergency with lights flashing giving special treatment, so to speak."
Police spokesman Richard Wilkes says the office that licenses private security personnel also disciplines them. "The private security department is looking into this," he says.
The aldermanic trio weren't the only local VIPs who received special treatment on February 24. Public relations executive and mayoral lobbyist Lou Hamilton and his wife, Mayor's Ball chair Tricia Roland-Hamilton, departed city hall that evening in a dark SUV with a blue light flashing atop its dashboard.
Lou Hamilton could not be reached for comment.