When U.S. Reps. Ann Wagner and Lacy Clay testified before Congress to have the West Lake Landfill clean up turned over to the Army Corps of Engineers in 2016, the public had no clue that a scandal-tainted St. Louis County government agency had paid big bucks to former U.S. Sen.Kit Bond’s lobbying firm to do its bidding on Capitol Hill.
July 13, 2016 was just another day on the sound stage that is Capitol Hill. But veteran congressman Lacy Clay couldn’t help noting that his usual role had changed. As the audience filed into the gallery behind him, the Democrat from St. Louis took his seat at the witness table next to Republican Rep. Ann Wagner of St. Louis County. In the moments preceding their testimony, a C-Span microphone captured Clay’s candid remark:
“It’s kind of different being on this side,” Clay said.
Clay’s awkward small talk with his conservative counterpart ended when the chairman of the Environment Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee gaveled the hearing into session at 10:03 a.m. By all accounts, what happened next in Room 2123 of the Rayburn House Office Building was a rare display of bipartisanship.
Wagner and Clay — who represent polar ends of the American political spectrum — bonded together that summer morning to send a unified message. The odd couple appealed to their fellow representatives to send House Resolution 4100 to the floor for a vote. If passed, the bill would have mandated the transfer of control of the controversial West Lake Landfill Superfund site in Bridgeton, Mo. to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Corresponding legislation had already been successfully steered through the Senate under the bipartisan guidance of Republican Sen. Roy Blunt and Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
Under the lax management of the EPA, the cleanup of the radioactively contaminated site had languished for decades. Attempting to correct the agency’s negligence was the shared responsibility of both congressmen because the dividing line between their respective districts literally runs through the landfill. Angry residents in St. Louis County were demanding change and they made it clear that the Corps was their preferred choice to oversee the long-delayed remedy for addressing leftover nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project. The previous autumn, their protests had been amplified by local and national news coverage and the release of two documentaries on the subject.
Public pressure continued over the intervening months, stoked by monthly community meetings and non-stop social media posts. By summer, the heated issue had reached critical mass. Local activists traveled to Washington, D.C. to show support for their representatives at the congressional hearing. Besides C-Span coverage, Wagner and Clay’s joint testimony blanketed the local St. Louis news.
Unfortunately, despite the concerted effort the measure failed to clear the subcommittee. Similar legislation in the next session was also derailed. The back-to-back failures occurred even though the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership , a local governmental agency, had quietly bankrolled the well-financed federal lobbying campaign for two years.
The details on how the grassroots, community-based movement morphed into a high-powered, Washington, D.C. lobbying project remain fuzzy. Calls and emails made to various private and public officials asking for comment have went unreturned.
Since its inception, no one has been in a hurry to divulge the machinations surrounding the deal, which flew under the radar using public funds without the knowledge of the vast majority of St. Louis area citizens. Organizing the congressional lobbying drive involved considerable time, a bundle of cash and lots of inside wheeling and dealing. To handle a job of this scale, the Development Partnership hired Kit Bond Strategies (KBS), the lobbying firm of former U.S. Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond of Missouri.
In hindsight, the failure of KBS to accomplish its goal set the future course for the West Lake clean up, which is now in the hands of the Trump administration.
Enter stage right: The Superfund Czar
The move to turnover the West Lake clean up to the Corps is now history. Last month, the final EPA remedy for a partial clean up of the site — a decision that falls short of full removal — was announced by the agency. If carried out as planned, large quantities of radioactive waste will remain on site and continue to be a threat to human health and the environment.
The long-postponed announcement came after the nascent Trump administration fast tracked the West Lake clean up in early 2017 as part of a campaign by then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to “streamline” the Superfund program. The task force created by Pruitt to accomplish that objective is now the subject of an EPA inspector’s general probe announced last month, which intends to examine the group’s secretive agenda. Pruitt and his top lieutenant Albert “Kell” Kelly both resigned earlier this year under a cloud. The controversial EPA administrator and former Oklahoma attorney general appointed Kelly, a Tulsa banker, in early 2017 to the newly formed post of EPA Superfund Czar. Kelly’s appointment came shortly after the FDIC had imposed a fine of $125,000 and barred him from banking for life.
With the latest rush of developments, the earlier pleas by Wagner and Clay to transfer the project to the Corps have now been largely forgotten, relegated to a footnote, a curious moment in time when congressional adversaries from opposite sides of the aisle put aside political differences for the common good. For a moment in the summer of 2016, it looked as if a spontaneous consensus had arrived on the scene in the nick of time. The St. Louis area congressmen gave heroic performances on camera — and the video went straight to YouTube, where Wagner can still be seen vehemently driving home her talking points by pounding on the table. Clay’s oratory was equally impassioned. Their words expressed sincere convictions and righteous outrage, echoing the pleas of their constituents.
It almost seemed too good to be true — and it was. In retrospect, Wagner and Clay now appear to have been reading from the same script of a made-for-TV movie.
What the public didn’t know back then was that the director of this staged congressional performance was KBS. Linda Bond, the former senator’s wife, is a senior partner in the lobbying firm. She signed the contract with St. Louis Economic Development Partnership CEO Sheila Sweeney in January 2016.
The Development Partnership is a joint government agency of the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County, which wields broad powers and operates largely in the shadows with the benefit of millions of dollars in annual payments from casino interests raked in by the St. Louis County Port Authority, an agency that shares the same staff as the Development Partnership. The County Port Authority’s purpose has nothing to do with ports. Instead, it acts as a conduit for the casino payments.
In 2016 and 2017, the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership funneled $230,000 of public funds to Kit Bond Strategies, according to federal lobbying reports. Part of that total went to pay for the failed congressional effort to turn the West Lake Landfill Superfund Site over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — an agency that expressed serious reservations about assuming the responsibility for taking control of the project in the first place. The exact amount spent specifically on the West Lake lobbying effort is uncertain. A request under the Missouri Sunshine Law for further details is pending. But this much is known: the development agency’s contract called for KBS to be paid $10,000 a month for its services. The lobbying records show that the public money was doled out to the lobbyist in quarterly payments. The St. Louis Economic Development Partnership paid the lobbying firm an additional $60,000 in 2018 , but by then the effort to persuade Congress to turn the West Lake clean up over to the Corps had been dropped.
In July, a St. Louis County Council ethics committee announced it was embarking on an investigation of a wide range of questionable activities by the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership involving alleged improprieties related to the agency’s contract procedures and real estate transactions in recent years. Its lobbying contract with KBS is not known to be a part of that investigation.
The announcement followed a series of revelations published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch focusing on the dodgy dealings of the Development Partnership and the County Port Authority under the Democratic administration of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger [1, 2, 3]. Among the allegations are those involving unusual bidding practices by businessman John Rallo, a Stenger supporter and an heir to the Rallo Construction Co. fortune. Rallo has been the beneficiary of a lucrative real estate sale by the Development Partnership and he has also sought advise on two consulting deals from Development Partnership CEO Sweeney, a Stenger appointee, in advance of submitting his bids, according to the Post-Dispatch.
At the same time, political opponents of Stenger’s on the St. Louis County Council, have alleged that Sweeney is under federal surveillance. Councilman Ernie Trakas, a Republican from South County, and Councilman Sam Page, a North County Democrat, raised the allegations on July 24. The allegations were reported by Post-Dispatch reporter Jeremy Kohler in the newspaper and on Twitter.
The protracted controversy has been roiling for more than a year. But until now, the ties between the Development Partnership and KBS have been unreported even though Sweeney’s signature is on the bottom line of the lobbying contract with that of KBS partner Linda Bond.
Trouble in River City
The St. Louis Economic Development Partnership is an autonomous county agency that distributes public money for various economic development schemes with the help of casino revenue that it receives from the St. Louis County Port Authority. The port authority gets its funding from an estimated $5 million in payments paid by the River City Casino in South St. Louis County. Pinnacle Entertainment opened the casino in 2010. It is now operated by Penn National Gaming. The casino property is owned by Gaming and Leisure Properties Inc., a real estate investment trust that was spun off by Penn National, which controls a virtual monopoly on the overall operations and ownership of the St. Louis area gambling industry.
The South County gambling site, which is located in unincorporated Lemay, is no stranger to controversy. Development of a casino at the location met stiff resistance from local businesses, churches, and residents in the past. Despite the widespread opposition, the St. Louis County Economic Development Council began wooing prospective casino developers there more than 20 years ago. Those initial efforts under the late St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall in the 1990s failed. But they set the precedent for current practices.
As early as 1995, the St. Louis County Port Authority accepted payments from an earlier casino developer interested in developing the site. The chairman of the Port Authority at that time was Sweeney, who in 2018 is still pulling strings as head of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, the umbrella agency that controls the purse strings of the County Port Authority funds. In 1995, Sweeney was already advocating spending payouts from gambling interests to support the development of other sites in St. Louis County.
Others involved in past issues tied to South County politics and the Lemay casino site include former South County Councilman Jeff Wagener, a Democrat who is now policy chief for St. Louis County Executive Stenger; and Wagener’s former assistant Julie Murphy Finn, the Kit Bond Strategies’ lobbyist who oversaw the congressional lobbying effort on behalf of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership in 2016. Wagener also sits on the board of directors of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership.
Murphy Finn was aided in her congressional lobbying assignment by fellow KBS lobbyist Kenny Hulshof, a former Republican congressman and gubernatorial candidate from Northeast Missouri.
Cold War Redux
But Hulshof and Murphy Finn were not the bosses of the operation. That distinction goes to KBS senior partner Linda Bond, who signed the sweetheart deal with Sweeney, the head of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. Both women are savvy political operatives. Sweeney has been an inside player in St. Louis County politics for decades under multiple county administrations; whereas, Bond’s career in national politics stretches back to the Reagan era and is rooted deeply in Cold War politics.
Long before she married the senator, Bond worked for the Voice of America, the propaganda arm of the U.S. State Department. From 1985 to 1991 she served as the director in Germany of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a non-governmental agency with long-established ties to the Central Intelligence Agency. The late William Casey, the former OSS agent and CIA director during the first term of President Ronald Reagan’s administration, served a stint as the president of the IRC, which aided Eastern Bloc and Soviet defectors.
In this case, however, there appears to have been no need for cloak and dagger skullduggery. Instead, the deal between Kit Bond Strategies and the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership was as easy as walking next door and borrowing a cup of sugar. KBS and the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership are neighbors in the Pierre Laclede Center II, a high-rise office tower at 7733 Forsyth Blvd. in Clayton. The development agency calls Suite 2200 home, and KBS lists its address as Suite 2300.
In the end, the motive behind the 2016 lobbying deal seems to have been predicated not on bi-partisan cooperation and concern for the environment as much as it was realpolitik, and cold hard cash.