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Special prosecutor says St. Louis County councilman must step down

St. Louis County Councilman Ernie Trakas
Alex Heuer I St. Louis Public Radio

A special prosecutor is recommending that St. Louis County Councilman Ernie Trakas forfeit his post because his legal work for school districts violates the county charter.

The prosecutor’s petition, filed late Friday, is expected to set off a process that could force Trakas off the council within a few months. Trakas is part of a bipartisan, four-person council coalition that frequently is at odds with County Executive Steve Stenger, a Democrat.

Trakas has blamed Stenger for his legal troubles, and for an apparently unrelated recall effort in Trakas’ 6th District. Stenger formerly was the councilman in that district.

Trakas, a Republican from Oakville, contended in a statement, "The attempt to remove me from office is part of an orchestrated attack by County Executive Steve Stenger to end investigations into pay-to-play schemes in county government."

Trakas did not mention his legal work. Instead, he noted that he chairs the council's Ethics Committee, which has been looking into the leases that the Stenger administration signed to move some county operations into the old Northwest Plaza in St. Ann. The developers revamping the old mall gave $365,000 to Stenger's campaign.

"It is my feeling that the lawsuit against me is nothing but harassment," Trakas said. 

County Council Chairman Sam Page, a Democrat and often a Trakas ally, blasted the prosecutor’s recommendation as unfair and a "retribution."

“I’m disappointed that there seems to be a double standard between a county executive who does insider deals and a council member who is just doing his job,” Page said.

Stenger's communications chief, Cordell Whitlock, replied in a statement, "This matter is between the special prosecutor, the assigned judge and Mr. Trakas."

Stenger previously has denied any involvement in the recall or the probe into Trakas’ alleged charter violations. (Stenger also has denied any improprieties in his administration's decision to move some county offices to the former Northwest Plaza.)

School clients may violate charter

At issue are Trakas’ law clients, which include school districts in Jefferson City, Cape Girardeau and Sikeston. Trakas has been representing and billing them while he’s still on the council.

Special Prosecutor Tim Lohmar – a fellow Republican who’s also the St. Charles County prosecutor – said in his petition that the legal work violates St. Louis County’s charter.

The charter states:

“No member of the council shall hold any other office or employment under the United States, the State of Missouri, or any municipality or political subdivision thereof.”

Lohman added in his petition, "Legal representation and services rendered to a public school district is 'employment'…”

The petition also notes the penalty is clear. The charter says, “When any member accepts any such office or employment, his office as member of the council shall thereby by vacated.”

Trakas previously has maintained that his work for the school districts is not a charter violation because he was technically not an employee.

State high court to take charge

The petition likely will now end up in the hands of the Missouri Supreme Court, which is expected to move the legal dispute to another county because of local conflicts of interest. The process is expected to take at least a couple months.

Lohmar’s petition was filed with St. Louis County Circuit Judge Douglas Beach, who already has made it clear that the county’s legal circuit will recuse itself.

Beach tapped the St. Charles County prosecutor in late December to serve as special prosecutor, after St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch said his office couldn’t handle the complaints lodged against Trakas because of conflicts.

Trakas was among the council members who recently voted to rescind their earlier decision to boost the county prosecutor’s pension when he retires.

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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