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Conflict-Of-Interest Allegations Lead To ZMD Board Resignation And Push For Stronger Regs

Images from zoo museum district entities
File photos and Wikipedia

New Zoo-Museum District board member Pat Whitaker resigned this afternoon following allegations of ethics violations.

Whitaker is chairman of St. Louis’ Arcturis design firm, which recently won a contract with the St. Louis Science Center. The Science Center is a subdistrict of the ZMD and receives about $10 million each year in tax dollars from the district. She had resigned as an employee of Arcturis, but still owns 37 percent of its stock.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie A. Dooley, who appointed Whitaker to the board in January, issued a statement, saying “This is truly unfortunate but I think Pat made the best decision for everyone involved. I know that she sincerely wanted to contribute to the ZMD because she loves this community and she wants to give back."

After Tuesday's St. Louis County Council meeting, Dooley said he'll move forward in a "very timely manner" to find a replacement.

"I think she’s a wonderful person. She wanted to give back to this community," Dooley told reporters. "It’s unfortunate that the situation resolved the way it did. But she did the right thing. And she resigned because she thought the best interest is for the board to move forward."

Whitaker was appointed by Dooley to replace Jerome Glick. Glick and current board members Charles Valier and Gloria Wessels have long been proponents for change at the ZMD and its institutions.

The Whitaker controversy flared Monday afternoon when Valier and Wessels said she should not have voted on the tax rate for the Science Center when her firm was trying to get a contract with that institution. They charged her with violating the district’s ethics policies and state statutes. At the same time the two are continuing to push to strengthen the ZMD’s ethics code.

Whitaker had sent an email to other ZMD board members Friday saying Arcturis had won a contract for an expansion of a St. Louis Science Center exhibition.

Charles Valier
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon
Charles Valier

The fact that the contract had not been awarded when the vote was made did not make a difference to Valier. “I don’t think there's any a question in anybody’s mind, except maybe hers, that she has a conflict,” Valier told St. Louis Public Radio.

In a meeting of the ZMD board on Monday, Whitaker said ZMD attorney Mike Chivell, of Armstrong Teasdale, told her that her actions were not at odds with policy. Whitaker did not return calls today from St. Louis Public Radio. Chivell did call back but would only say that he would “not comment on client matters.”

The ZMD ethics code gives board members until May 1 of any given year to disclose contracts involving companies in which members have an interest, as spelled out below at the top of section 1.3:

The full text of the ZMD Code of Ethics is below.

2013 Zoo Museum District Code of Ethics Dated December 7, 2006 by St. Louis Public Radio

When asked what needed to be changed, Valier said simply mandating disclosure is not enough.

“If they tell the world that they’re going to enter into a contract with a subdistrict, and they’re going to make X amount of dollars from it without a prohibition, then what you have is completely toothless,” Valier said.

Valier wants the ethics code to prohibit all significant contracts between board members and the five ZMD institutions.

“No director, and then you have to expand it to family members, can do business in excess of a thousand dollars with any member of the subdistrict or any of their ancillary organizations,” he said.

At the ZMD board meeting April 21. Whitaker is second from the left.
Credit Alex Heuer | St. Louis Public Radio
At the ZMD board meeting April 21. Whitaker is second from the left.

The ZMD policy also says ZMD board members must comply with state law regarding conflicts of interest.

Valier alleges that Whitaker's actions may have violated the part of the statutes that says:

“No elected or appointed official or employee of the state or any political subdivision thereof shall:

“Act or refrain from acting in any capacity in which he is lawfully empowered to act as such an official or employee by reason of any payment, offer to pay, promise to pay, or receipt of anything of actual pecuniary value paid or payable, or received or receivable, to himself or any third person, including any gift or campaign contribution, made or received in relationship to or as a condition of the performance of an official act, other than compensation to be paid by the state or political subdivision; or

“Use his decision-making authority for the purpose of obtaining a financial gain which materially enriches himself, his spouse or dependent children by acting or refraining from acting for the purpose of coercing or extorting from another anything of actual pecuniary value.”

Response to Roddy Report

At its Monday meeting, the ZMD said it has taken an initial step in another matter: A St. Louis City Aldermanic report calling for sweeping change in the district.

On April 1, ZMD executive director Patrick Dougherty sent a letter to city alderwoman Lyda Krewson saying it has formed a committee to reply to the January report released by then-chair of the aldermanic parks committee Joe Roddy. Krewson became chair of the committee after Roddy left to head the housing committee.

At Monday’s meeting, the ZMD agreed that its committee will meet within the next two weeks. Krewson told St. Louis Public Radio that she couldn’t speculate about what the aldermanic committee’s next move might be until she hears more from the ZMD.

“I’ll have to wait to see what their response is,” Krewson said.

St. Louis Public Radio reporter Jason Rosenbaum contributed to this report.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.