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Slay's role as lobbyist raises questions over conflict of interest in quest to privatize airport

After many delays, the city's contract with consultants to explore the privatization of St. Louis Lambert International Airport may be official soon.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay is continuing to play a role in the privatization process for St. Louis Lambert International Airport that he initiated while in office.

Francis Slay, just weeks before leaving office as mayor in April of last year, initiated the process that could lead to the privatization of St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

In June of this year, Slay was hired by Ferrovial Airports, a Madrid-based company with extensive experience in managing airports in Europe, and considered one of three top contenders in the bidding process for Lambert.

Slay, who is an attorney, registered as a lobbyist in June with the Missouri Ethics Commission “to lobby local elected officials.” His role as a lobbyist for a company seeking to lease the city's largest asset through a process that he initiated while mayor has raised some eyebrows, and some serious questions about conflict of interest.

Mayor Francis Slay speaks to reporters outside his City Hall office on Feb. 3, 2017.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Francis Slay, the longest serving mayor in the history of St. Louis, could continue to have influence over the future management of Lambert Airport as a lobbyist for Ferrovial Airports, one of three companies expected to bid on the privatization lease.

Slay is in private practice with the law firm Spencer Fane. The former mayor did not respond to requests for comment. (Read Slay's op-ed piece on privatization for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from last February.)

When asked to provide some detail about Slay’s contract with Ferrovial Airports, the Madrid-based company that has hired Slay as a consultant, Spencer Fane partner Frank Neuner responded via email.

He wrote that the firm “does not comment on our client engagements absent their approval. We have reviewed the rules that apply to an attorney and a lobbyist after leaving government employment, and we are confident that Spencer Fane and its attorneys and registered lobbyists are fully compliant with the law.”

The St. Louis municipal code adopts its ordinances governing conflict of interest verbatim from the Missouri statutes. They prohibit a number of actions by former elected and appointed officials.

“One of them is a general prohibition against dealing with the agency where they were a supervisor for a period of time. There’s effectively a time-out period of one year,” explained Michael Downey, an attorney who specializes in legal ethics.

“Then a second provision says that they can't benefit from specific decisions they made or specific matters they handled while in office and typically that doesn't have a time limit.”

In fact, the second provision is a permanent ban on such conduct.

It states, former elected officials and employees may not “perform any service for any consideration for any person, firm or corporation after termination of his or her office or employment in relation to any case, decision, proceeding or application with respect to which he or she was directly concerned or in which he or she personally participated during the period of his or her service or employment.” 

Concern then silence from city officials

Mayor Lyda Krewson’s representative on an advisory group overseeing the exploration of privatizing Lambert voiced concern regarding Slay’s role during a public meeting in early July.

“To me, we need advice from the city counselor’s office, we need to understand from the Missouri Ethics Commission, what it requires to do in terms of regulating consultants,” said Linda Martinez, deputy mayor of economic development.

Yet, it’s difficult to know whether the city’s legal counsel or the advisory group has sought advice from the Missouri Ethics Commission, due to confidentiality rules.

City counselor Julian Bush declined to comment for this story.

Krewson also declined to comment. Her spokesman, Koran Addo, said in explanation, “The mayor doesn’t have control over who private companies hire.”

The Missouri Ethics Commission can only take action if a complaint is filed that warrants an investigation in alleged conflicts of interest where state law applies. Any citizen can file such a complaint. 

Alderman Scott Ogilvie, D-24th Ward, said Slay’s role as a lobbyist raises many questions.

“I think you do get the sense that since he is working now for one of the firms that may make a bid on a lease, that you have to wonder if some people had their eye on these opportunities when they started this process,” Ogilvie told St. Louis Public Radio.

Ogilvie is a co-sponsor of a bill proposed by Alderwoman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, to require a public vote on any plan to privatize Lambert. Both officials have been critical of the process and players involved in the process without aldermanic oversight.

“It’s a little disturbing,” Ogilvie said, “because if we're going down this road you want to make sure that everything you do is in the interest of the public, in the interest of the city's budget. And it's not colored by the idea that the people that set the process in motion are going to have a payday at the end of the process. And it now looks like that could be the case.”

Ethics rules aim to increase public confidence in political process

Conflict-of-interest rules are not intended to tie the hands of former public officials, according to attorney Michael Downey.

“We want to encourage people to serve in government service and we realize they gain a certain amount of expertise and knowledge and skills in that and we want them to then be able to use those and in private life.” 

But there have to be limits, he said. They're meant to ensure that government officials are making decisions in the best interest of the public they represent.

“We don't want them to be doing something because they're either going to profit now, or they may be thinking well I can profit from this at some point in the future,” Downey said.

Lawrence Dessem, Timothy J. Heinsz Professor of Law and former dean of the University of Missouri School of Law, said attorneys also have to avoid conflicts of interest. In Slay's instance, Dessem said he would need more facts about the contract between the former mayor and the company interested in leasing Lambert, before rendering an opinion.

But, like several other legal experts interviewed for this story, Dessem is concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest.

I come from a world of legal ethics where we encourage lawyers to err on the side of caution and not raise possible potential conflicts,” Dessem said. “Actual conflicts are hard to prove because some of those facts may be confidential. So we look at appearances of impropriety or appearances of problems. And that's why, in fact, we have statutes such as Missouri has saying if a reasonable person might have a concern then let's have the public official hold back and not get too close to the line.”

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