City rats usually view urban sprawl as a bad trend, with all that money and all those people moving farther and farther out from the central core of town. But when it comes to tawdry behavior in government, an unexpected suburban scandal can provide a smokescreen that may be just the type of regional cooperation beleaguered city politicos can actually appreciate.
How else could sexual-harassment charges filed by two male cops against a popular priest who is the president of the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners be bumped below the fold on Page One of the daily paper of record? How else, indeed, but by a county councilman's pleading guilty to taking cash bribes of $4,500 from a taxicab company and then resigning from office.
In both soap operas, political subplots abound -- some obvious, others obscure.
In the county case, the agenda is plain. A Democratic councilman, Robert Young IV, took the bribe, pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing. A Republican councilman, John Campisi, refused the bribe and turned Young in. County Republicans want to leverage this as much as they can to retain control of the council and oust über-politician George "Buzz" Westfall, a Democrat, from the county executive's office.
In the city, the base motivations behind the scandal-mongering are more fractured and harder to decipher. What is clear is that the Rev. Maurice Nutt, board president, resigned on Dec. 19, two days after two African-American patrolmen filed complaints with the police's personnel department alleging that he was sexually harassing them. Just when it looked as if it would all fade away, on Jan. 7 Mayor Francis Slay said there could be an investigation. And this week, the police board hired local lawyer Jerry M. Hunter to conduct an investigation.
Nutt denies all the charges.
It's baffling that the board would pursue an investigation, because it has no power to punish Nutt -- mainly because he resigned and, unless things take a nastier turn toward a true witch hunt, this is only a civil matter. Richard Swatek, attorney for the two policemen, claims his clients were content to let the matter lie after Nutt resigned and that they had no plans to sue. He says the story became "media-driven." Several media outlets filed Sunshine Law requests to get copies of the complaints, and the police department sought a declaratory judgment from the courts. Both the department and Swatek contend that the complaints are a personnel matter and should not be made public.
Swatek is not optimistic that the complaints will remain a private matter. "In addition to the other board members, the mayor got a copy; he's a member of the board," Swatek says. "Who knows how many Xeroxes have been made by now?" With this increased attention, Swatek says, life for his clients is more stressful and the chances of a civil suit have risen to "50-50."
Stranger still than a police board's investigation of a president who's long gone is a recent exchange on Post-Dispatch columnist Greg Freeman's "Front Porch" online forum on STLToday.com. Freeman, a parishioner at Nutt's church, questions the pursuit of the priest. One of the respondents in the forum is none other than Richard Callow, a local public-relations maven who worked on Slay's mayoral campaign and lives with Deputy Mayor Barb Geisman. Callow argues that the investigation should be pursued. Freeman, in direct response to Callow, says it's being fueled by people "with political agendas of their own" and that "this whole thing smells rotten to me."
There's some backroom speculation that keeping the burners turned up on the reasons Nutt quit is a warning to any other public figures in the city who are perceived as also having something hidden in their sexual closets. Although the complaints filed against Nutt seem spontaneous, now that they're public, expect the opportunistic to take full advantage of them.
Back in Clayton, the motivations are not nearly so seamy or surreptitious. When Campisi met with the press about the airport-taxi bribes, seated at his elbow was County Council Chairman Kurt Odenwald, anxious to make a partisan pitch. Odenwald talked of how Republicans have tried to clean up the council since becoming the majority a year ago. He stopped short of implying that Westfall had been seen driving a cab at Lambert with a bag of unmarked bills in the backseat, but it was clear the Republicans planned to make sweeping statements come campaign time.
After meeting the press, Odenwald told Short Cuts he didn't mean to impugn Westfall, but he didn't deny a possible impact, suggesting that for some voters, Bob Young's guilt might cast a long enough shadow to fall on the incumbent county executive.
"The fact that Bob is in the same party as the county executive, I think, may affect people who are independent-minded voters or who don't pay attention that much," Odenwald says.
That it was Campisi who brought down Young, a pipefitter by trade, is particularly fitting because Campisi, a Republican, was backed by groups opposing the passage of a county ordinance that would have required installers of heating and cooling systems to be licensed [Peter Downs, "Pipe Schemes," Oct. 11, 2000]. In that piece, Downs reported that the controversy over the proposed ordinance that would have benefited the Pipefitters Union had the potential to destroy the political coalitions that have kept Democrats in power in much of eastern Missouri. Campisi defeated Democratic incumbent Jeff Wagener, who sponsored the ordinance, for the South County council seat in November 2000.
Odenwald cited the Republican opposition to the mechanical-code ordinance, referring to it as "the Pipefitter Protection Act," as an example of how his party had "tried to restore the integrity of the council amid the charges of cronyism and influence-peddling."
Expect Odenwald and other county Republicans to riff on that topic before the special elections to fill two council seats and the general election for county executive in November. As for the city, expect more dark rumblings beneath the surface. This should surprise no one; original sin exists on both sides of the city limits, but a more vintage variety is found east of Skinker Boulevard.