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Local FBI chief hints that more convictions coming soon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 29, 2009 - Before he leaves town for Miami in a couple weeks, local FBI chief John Gillies may have a few more law-enforcement surprises up his sleeve.

"We have ongoing investigations and we'll see where these investigations take us,'' Gillies said today during an interview on the St. Louis public-radio show, "St. Louis On the Air.'' 

(The questioners: yours truly with the Beacon, University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor Dave Robertson and radio-show host Don Marsh.)

While circumspect, that comment was Gillies' strongest indication yet that last week's guilty plea by former state Rep. T.D. El-Amin, D-St.Louis, in federal court won't be the last by some local public official.

El-Amin's guilty plea was the third in less than a month by an area Democratic legislator.

El-Amin admitted guilt in soliciting and accepting a bribe. A few weeks ago, then-state Rep. Steve Brown, D-Clayton, and former state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, pleaded guilty to federal felony charges in connection with campaign activities during Smith's unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2004.

Gillies oversaw the investigations in all three cases. 

Gillies -- who earlier worked in Detroit and Hawaii -- has been in St. Louis for just under two years as the "special agent in charge." But during that short tenure he has overseen more public corruption cases than the region has seen in years.

When he first hit town, Gillies said he made public corruption "one of my priorities,'' reflecting the fact that "I have a passion for these kinds of cases."

And in St. Louis, he found plenty of them.

Gillies said his initial focus was the "high incidence in law enforcement corruption." As that area was cleaned up, he said, he shifted the local FBI's attention to public elected officials.

That aggressive approach, he said, has paid off by encouraging more members of the public to come forward with evidence.

"If you want change, you have to come forward,'' the FBI chief said, referring to potential witnesses and whistleblowers.

The guilty pleas, said Gillies, are contributing to a higher "comfort level in coming forward and sharing information with us."

Smith and Brown pleaded guilty, in effect, to lying to federal investigators. The bribes cited in E-Amin's guilty plea added up to only $2,100.

But Gillies added with emphasis, "We're only charging some of what we're aware of,'' going forward only on those cases or charges where there is solid evidence.

"Greed has no dollar value,'' Gillies continued, explaining why the FBI isn't focusing chiefly on high-dollar cases. "I see no difference whatsoever."

"It starts with the first cup of free coffee, the free round of golf'' then progresses to bigger takes, Gillies explained.

The offending officials "start taking and taking and taking. Then they start demanding."

"That greed starts to settle in," he continued, and it's then augmented or supplanted by "that hunger for power."

Gillies declined comment when asked about rumors swirling on the Internet that another batch of indictments or guilty pleas may soon come out of the federal law-enforcement offices in Kansas City. The state's Western District of the FBI, and the companion U.S. Attorney's office, take in Jefferson City, the state capital.

When he moves on soon to head up the FBI's office in Miami, the nation's fifth-largest, Gillies will be replaced here by Roland J. Corvington, who had been his predecessor overseeing the St. Louis FBI office. Corvington has held an FBI post in Washington the last couple of years.

Corvington, said Gillies, "shares the sentiment that (fighting) public corruption is the highest priority" of the FBI.

The FBI is making public-corruption a top focus throughout the country, Gillies said. And in his opinion, it's widespread.

"If you tell me you don't have corruption in your city," Gillies said, "You're not looking for it."

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.