What Happens When Developers Go Beyond The Contract?
If over the last three years of fighting NorthPoint Development’s Compass Business Park I received a dollar for every time I read a Facebook comment that read “Follow the Money,” or for each time I heard it muttered under the breath of disgruntled residents in passing after board meetings, or for each time the defeated proclamations of “It’s corrupt. The whole state is corrupt! That’s just the way it is.” I’d quickly amass a small fortune — because it gets said a lot. Who can blame them? When we see a stacked plan commission unanimously recommend a project that contained illegal annexation — which was confirmed moments before the vote by the city attorney — you have to admit, the optics are bad.
Somebody, do something! FOLLOW. THE. MONEY. FOLLOW IT!
The words get typed, and at the end of the day, when we all go to bed, those words go to bed, too. They get lost in the feed until some other shocking bit of news is released, and like clockwork, “Follow the money” appears again. Hell, it will probably appear in the comments of this post.
The bystander effect is a well-documented psychological phenomenon that somehow inhibits people from actually doing something when they see something wrong. The more people around, the less likely it is for intervention to occur.
Funny thing is, that’s exactly what happened in St. Louis, Missouri. Nobody followed the money. Until they did.
STL Jamestown Mall Site to be Developed by NorthPoint
In 2018, NorthPoint Development planned a logistics center at the Jamestown Mall site in St. Louis, Missouri. In fact, they were the lone developer who wanted the project — and even when they had the upper hand, they offered St. Louis a sweetheart deal.
The fabulous deal was reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Sweeney said NorthPoint had agreed to pay the St. Louis County Port Authority $2.5 million for Jamestown Mall, and planned to abate any hazardous waste and demolish the mall at its own expense. […] Sweeney said she was “very excited about what we received. I think it answers a lot of what the community is hoping for. Especially with jobs.”
And it was happening! Another article revealed more detail: “[…] Stenger was asked about the percentage probability of an entity voting for something. Who and what it was about were blacked out. Stenger responded, ‘About a hundred.’ Miller said, ‘This deal’s getting done.'”
Wow, sounds like a dream come true! DONE DEAL! (Where have I heard that before?)
Except it wasn’t a dream come true and it wasn’t a done deal because it quickly became a nightmare for elected officials. Why’s that? Well, somebody followed the money and got that trail to the right people.
Pay-to-Play Politics, Bribery & Corruption in STL
The pay-to-play scheme in St. Louis over the Jamestown Mall development resulted in County Executive Steve Stenger getting 46 months in federal prison, his chief of staff getting just 15 months in federal prison, and a slew of others receiving other various punishments including probation and hefty fines (and some are still awaiting sentencing).
You can read the statement from The United States District Attorneys Office — Eastern District of St. Louis that states, “Stenger engaged in a systemic scheme to defraud and deprive the citizens of St. Louis County of their right to his honest and faithful services by soliciting and accepting bribes in exchange for county contracts and grants. The purpose of the scheme was for Stenger to secretly use his official position to enrich himself through soliciting and accepting campaign contributions from individuals and their companies in exchange for his favorable official action in issuing government contracts and grants to those political donors.”
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch covered this extensively, breaking with a May 15, 2019 article stating: “Former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger was working in September to arrange a bribe payment in connection to the redevelopment of Jamestown Mall, the Post-Dispatch has learned.”
And who was the lone developer, again? Oh, that NorthPoint, always going beyond the contract.
But NorthPoint was innocent. They knew nothing about these backdoor dealings. They said as much in comments to the news. And it is important to note that because of their innocence NorthPoint has faced zero repercussions— but they are no longer developing the Jamestown Mall site.
I’d be willing to bet that NorthPoint ran as far away from that project as they could. Maybe they ran all the way to Illinois.
What do people say about Illinois? You tell me.
What Do We Learn From St. Louis?
So with all of that going on (out of state, out of mind) what are we doing here?
In the aftermath of the Stenger case, Call Newspapers editor Gloria Lloyd reported on what was a “rare appearance” of the Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith where he spoke at an “Ethics in County Government” town hall. Goldsmith handled the case against Stenger and brought down the administration. Goldsmith had a lot to say, and we should be listening. The entire article is worth the read.
In the article, Lloyd reported that “no one voluntarily went to the federal government to turn in Stenger. Instead, people talked about Stenger’s corruption — but only after federal agents showed up on their doorstep first.”
The article continued, citing quotes from Goldsmith “Whether members of the public or county employees, “too many people viewed what he was doing as simply politics as usual, as simply what politicians do, and that’s an attitude that has to change if you want to restore honesty, integrity and ethics to government,” Goldsmith said. “We hope of course that the federal investigation and prosecution sends a different message, sends the message that this conduct won’t be tolerated.””
But what is perhaps most pertinent from that article is a message we need to heed:
From the article, “The prosecutor said that citizens have to stand up against someone going against their interests. ‘You, the public, have to reject politicians who peddle these pay-to-play schemes and not simply accept it,’ he said. To that end, he encouraged members of the public to do something he said he does regularly — examine campaign-finance reports of officials to see who is giving to their campaign, and who might expect something in return: ‘I read those all the time.’ […] But he said anyone can see what he sees and what companies might expect something from county officials. ‘My point is simply it’s out there to be seen, you can see what your elected officials are doing and what you’re doing with them,’ the prosecutor pointed out.”
Follow the Money.
I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder what is going on here, when right before our eyes we see elected officials who, quite literally are in office to represent the people, ignoring the wishes of the people in favor of fancy PowerPoints and promises of grandeur. I don’t know about you, but my parents taught me that when something seems too good to be true, it usually is. But that’s just common sense sprinkled with a dash of pessimism.
Bob Okon with The Herald-News just wrote a piece in which he wondered about the objectivity of Joliet with NorthPoint with the plan commission being stacked with union folks who just want to put a Thanksgiving turkey on their table. That wonderment is contagious: What is going on?
We have Sheri Reardon, who had absolutely no idea about the $1000 campaign donation from NorthPoint Development when she cast a critical YES vote for the 103 acres. She didn’t know about it, and went on the radio to say as much after the vote, even though the Patch wrote about it in July 2019: “Sherri Reardon’s Top Donors Include Terry D’Arcy, NorthPointe.” That July Patch article prompted her to address D’Arcy as a donor at the following August 2019 board meeting, though nary a word was said about NorthPoint — which was well before the November 2019 vote on the 103 acres. (And I mean, really, that is pretty cheap. Who could actually be bought off for a mere $1000?! That doesn’t seem realistic.)
And then there’s the endless trail of money, big money, money that matters, that comes into the trade unions and goes out to the officials. They just want that handful of construction jobs. THEY NEED THEM. And Thanksgiving turkeys.
I guess if every campaign donation is funneled through the trade unions, it makes it all OK. It all comes out in the wash anyway, right?
So is there anyone out there willing to listen?
Well, I’ll tell you what. People already think I’m too brash, too loud, and say too much. I’m honest to a fault. But they’ve thought that my whole damn life. My mom used to sing a song to me when I was a kid, “you worry me to death because you talk too much,” and my dad would shake his head at some of the things his youngest child would blurt out. I can only imagine what my parents would have to say about my antics the last three years.
But I digress. My point is, we can’t stop digging for the truth and putting it out there —because people are listening. Our cause grows with each day. And I won’t shut up. I don’t know how.
So join me in continuing to press on. And follow the money, would you?
This is an opinion piece written by Stephanie Irvine.