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Post-Dispatch columnist finds self-dealing drained Taum Sauk fund

The "scour trail" stripped away all vegetation when the Taum Sauk dam gave way.
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
After the dam burst in 2005, a "scour trail" stripped away all vegetation, leading to an ecological and economic disaster for the region.

On Dec. 14, 2005, the dam at the Taum Sauk reservoir burst. The break sent more than 1 billion gallons of water crashing into Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, wreaking destruction on a statewide destination for nature lovers.

After the disaster, a different kind of flood followed: In 2007, $7 million in state aid was supposed to flow into Iron County and Reynolds County to revitalize the areas damaged in the disaster. Iron County’s fund, managed by the Iron County Economic Partnership, had roughly $3 million to work with. Today, that fund is only about $165,000, with little to show for it.

Where did the money go?

“Most of it in the past year went to businesses that were controlled, or are controlled, by people who had connections to the board,” said Tony Messenger, a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Messenger joined Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air to discuss his extensive, four-part investigative series published late last month.

Messenger found that the Iron County Economic Partnership has run through much of the recovery fund, with several six-figure disbursements for projects going to groups closely tied to the partnership’s members. Although the fund was intended to revitalize the area, hundreds of thousands of dollars went to nonprofits and projects that either failed or created limited economic impact.

“When insiders are taking money that was put in there by the state to benefit the entire community, and they're using it to benefit themselves? That's just really offensive to me. And that's what really drew me to the story,” Messenger said.

Scrutiny of the Iron County recovery fund isn’t new. Erich Jett was hired by the partnership in 2015 as a consultant. He later became a whistleblower — and a key source in Messenger’s investigation — because of the way money flowed out of the fund.

“[The fund] was supposed to get money to the people who suffered losses after the catastrophe,” Jett told St. Louis on the Air.

“Somewhere, there has to be justice for all this. Somehow, we have to get that fund replenished,” Jett added. ”We got to find somebody willing to take on this case. The attorney general's office does not have an interest in it, the IRS in the past has not had an interest in it. So we have to go beyond that and take action on our own.”

To hear more from the Post-Dispatch’s Tony Messenger and Erich Jett about the Taum Sauk Fund, including what happened after a local sheriff got involved, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast or by clicking the play button below.

Listen to Tony Messenger and Erich Jett on "St. Louis on the Air"

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."
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