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12 questions for longtime St. Louis County prosecutor as he leaves office – and his answers

When he leaves office at the end of December, Bob McCulloch will have spent 28 years as St. Louis County's prosecuting attorney.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh and St. Louis Public Radio reporter Rachel Lippmann talked with outgoing St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch.

Having first taken office in the early ’90s, McCulloch has served in the position ever since. But a stunning upset by Wesley Bell in this year’s Democratic primary has McCulloch’s long tenure now coming to a close.

Marsh and Lippmann spoke at length with McCulloch, asking a wide variety of questions. Twelve of those exchanges are included below, and you can listen to the full conversation:

Marsh: Are you leaving [office] with relief or regret?

McCulloch: Neither one, really. I understand how the process works – [this is] not exactly how I planned on exiting, but at the same time I have zero regrets. And it was a great job with wonderful people around, and some terrific people, and we did a lot of good over the years … we always did what was appropriate under any particular circumstances, and I try to instill that in the prosecutors I hired and the victims-service people – that look, no one is ever going to know as much about the case you’ve got than you. And no matter how hard they try or no matter how well- or ill-intentioned they are, they’re not going to know as much as you. So based on everything you’ve got, you do what’s right in that situation.

Marsh: What’s the transition been like with Wesley Bell?

McCulloch: It’s not so bad, I guess. We’ve met a couple times, and he’s met with the staff and talked with them, and so whatever they’ve asked for we’ve provided and tried to guide him in a couple different areas, because they don’t know a whole lot about the office or the procedure or the job, for that matter.

Lippmann: Has he been receptive to what you’ve been trying to tell him, especially about some of the administrative side?

McCulloch: Yeah, I think so, and as I said to him and tell a lot of people, there’s nothing magical about the structure I have in the office, but that works for me and it’s worked well. And we’ve fine-tuned it and adjusted it and changed it completely over the years. And I suggested to him that you take advantage of that – take advantage of the expertise and the experience that is there, and then make whatever adjustments you think are appropriate, whatever you need. And I think he’s, at least from what I’ve heard, some of the stuff, that he’s inclined to not make massive, immediate changes.

Marsh: I get the sense that you maybe are a little concerned – you mentioned his lack of experience and that sort of thing. Are you?

McCulloch: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s like any other job … the three people who are leaving Jan. 1 – there’s the elected [position] of course and then there are two non-civil-service positions. And so we’re all leaving the end of the year – that is 95 years cumulative experience, just us three, in that office … that’s being replaced by zero years. So there’s going to be a learning curve there – that’s neither right nor wrong. It is what it is. But there’s a lot to learn.

Marsh: One gets the sense also that the members of the staff are certainly concerned, because they’ve all just voted to join a police union.

McCulloch: Sure, they’re concerned, and based on a lot of the rhetoric that occurred during the campaign about "people gotta go, there are people in that office that gotta go, they gotta get out, I’m bringing in my own people …" that caused a lot of concern, and I think rightfully so. Civil service [protection system] is something of a protection, but they’re not there for the employee. They’re not representing the employee. And so their concern was that there is nobody representing them in their interest. They’re professionals, they’re highly experienced, they’re very, very good at what they do if I say so myself, and I will. And they’re concerned, you know, that somebody comes in from the outside with no experience and now all of a sudden has taken the top position, well, that limits their chances to move up and move on and remain in the office. So who knows. I think there are legitimate concerns about that.

Lippmann: Was this something that they had ever advocated before while you were in this leadership role?

McCulloch: No, no, that never came up. And I think part of that was [that] they knew I’d been an advocate for my employees for as long as I’ve been there, and whether that was fighting with the [St. Louis] County council over something or somebody else, and it was a fight at times. Something I’m very proud of that we accomplished many years ago was we convinced – I was going to say shamed – but we convinced the county council years ago to change the pay structure so that we could retain people.

Marsh: When you look back at [Ferguson], do you see anything you think you might’ve done differently during that time?

McCulloch: There are things I would have liked to have done differently, but that’s really about it. No. I knew my responsibility going in. I had been a prosecutor for a long, long time at that point, and it was not something that, you know, I’m going to be subject to intimidation by people with ulterior motives screaming at me and yelling and all that. That doesn’t bother me in the least. So we’re going to go about our business and do what prosecutors are supposed to do, and that is gather all of the evidence and information and in this case present it to an impartial, separate legal body to make the determination as to whether there should be something there. The only thing I would like to have done but I couldn’t do by the rules and the statutes, the ethical rules, is release a lot of information as we were going. It didn’t bother Eric Holder and his Justice Department, but I couldn’t do it.

Marsh: One of the things that comes up and has come up from time to time is an accusation that you’re racially insensitive. What’s your response to that? Do you feel in any sense that you might be?

McCulloch: No. I really don’t. Half the time – I can think of different press conferences when we’re announcing where we’ve filed charges against somebody, and then they would ask, "OK, how old is the guy?" And I’ve got to look to see what his age is. "OK, what’s his race?" and I have to look to see what the race is. We have all that information, because it’s part of identification and the like. But no – I think if you look back at the cases and the way they’re handled that you’re going to see that a very comparable case, whether it’s a black defendant or a white defendant, or a Bosnian or anyone else … gets treated the same way.

Lippmann: Where do you think that came from, then? If you look back on your career, are there places where you sit and you look and you say, “You know, I can see where this would be interpreted as racially insensitive?” Or how does that narrative get started?

McCulloch: I think part of the narrative is you look at a number of the people, and I won’t name any just yet, but that’s – everything to them is racially motivated. And no matter what it is it’s racially motivated as far as they’re concerned, and if you look and dig into that you will see that that’s how they support themselves. And they do a great disservice to the minority community in general, not just African-Americans, but other minorities, because people get so tired of hearing that – “Wait a minute, this guy robbed a bank. This guy raped a woman. How is that racial that we’re prosecuting the guy for that?” … Al Sharpton comes to mind immediately … that’s how he makes his living by continuing to make these allegations.

Lippmann: I wanted to get your take on … the political situation that your successor is going to be walking into. You’ve mentioned that you’ve fought with the St. Louis County Council before. I’m just wondering from an outsider’s perspective, as someone who’s been involved in county government for 28 years: What the heck is going on?

McCulloch: I don’t know, and to say that the council is dysfunctional is being, I think, pretty generous. Pat Dolan’s the only guy on the council who exercise[s] any semblance of common sense, and unfortunately Pat’s caught up in the same thing I was caught up in and won’t be there … in the fall – Tim Fitch will be there and I think he’ll bring some sense to it. One at a time. But the good news always for me was that, even though I’m a county prosecutor, I don’t represent the county. I don’t have a whole lot of connection to the county, I don’t enforce county ordinances, any of that. I don’t represent the county when they get sued … but of course I have to depend on the county for the budget … the budget for [my] office. So, I mean forever, no matter who it was on that council, you were able to sit down – you might disagree about some things, you might disagree about a lot of things, but it was civil. You could work with each other and say, “Well I can’t do that, but I can live with this.” And it’s not just the council – you see it, I think, at every level of government now.

Lippmann: You said that [Councilman Dolan] got caught up in the same thing you did. What is that same thing? What do you think you both got caught up in in August?

McCulloch: We got caught up in the Bernie Sanders crowd [that] has kind of taken over a lot of the primary … the people who, I think, the more I talk to any of them, at some of the political meetings throughout the campaign, you’re thinking, “This guy honestly believes that ‘free’ means nobody’s paying for it.” So when they talk that stuff, you’re thinking, “No, somebody’s paying somewhere along the line.” I just don’t think they get it. Mine was different. I had the ACLU and other organizations funded by George Soros coming in and dumping, I think when it’s all told, it’s about a half a million dollars in to oppose my reelection. And that was just wrong.

Marsh: Are you bitter about that?

McCulloch: I know it’s part of the process and how it goes, that you do that. Now it’s really not [that] with the ACLU – they have a tax-exempt status and yet they engaged in politics. They filed statements [with the ethics commission] that, “We spent [such-and-such amount of money] to oppose the reelection of Bob McCulloch.” Now, you can’t have it both ways … they’ve got some issues they’re going to have to address. But “bitter” is probably not a good word for it. It’s just a reality – that’s the way the political system works now. There’s so much dark money – and this really isn’t even dark.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Xandra Ellin give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.