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County Council sets standards on pensions, seeks to set whistleblower protections

In a move that was clearly aimed at former County Executive Steve Stenger, a unanimous St. Louis County Council passed a measure Aug. 6 to prevent any elected official from collecting a pension if he is convicted of a felony while serving in his official role. The new rule would also apply to non-elected county officials, merit employees like police officers, convicted of certain felonies like bribery.

The measure was introduced by council member Tim Fitch [R-District 3], who wants to send a clear message to Stenger, who resigned after being charged with multiple offenses related to a “pay for play” scandal.

“Those are taxpayer-funded pensions. [Stenger] was stealing from the tax payers,” Fitch said after the meeting. “He should not receive a pension from the taxpayers as well.”

Stenger would have been eligible to start collecting a monthly pension payment of $1,660 from the county after his 60th birthday in 2032. The monthly payment would have increased after Stenger’s 65th birthday to $1,963 a month.

Following the council’s action, Stenger won’t get a dime.

“The ordinance is in effect before he was convicted so we feel it’s legal and will apply to him,” Fitch said, noting that conviction formally takes place upon receiving a sentence and the measure was passed before Stenger was convicted.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry sentenced Stenger on Aug. 9 to w46 months in prison. Additionally, he was fined $250,000. Earlier this month, he prepaid $130,000 in restitution, a move some saw as an attempt to secure a lighter sentence. Perry, however, sentenced him to the full extent of time allowed by law.

In addition to spearheading the pension legislation, Fitch also wants to see more protection for those who come forward to report unethical or criminal behavior.

“We know of multiple county employees that were forced to make decisions that we know were unethical, and maybe in some cases illegal, at the request of the former county executive,” Fitch said. “[Those employees] had no recourse to go anywhere to report what they were being forced to do without the possibility of losing their jobs because they were appointed by the county executive.”

Fitch’s proposal would create several safeguards in the system across multiple branches of county government. When a concern of unethical or criminal behavior is reported, a report would go to both the department of administration [executive] and to the county council [legislative].

Fitch’s proposal also would create a hotline that would be serviced by an independent third party for confidential reports on unethical behavior by county employees and/or elected officials.

If enacted, St. Louis County would not be the first in Missouri to pass such legislation. The state of Missouri enacted “The Whistleblower’s Protection Act” in 2017. Chapter 285.575 of the Missouri Statutes provides definitions of who is protected, what activities are protected and what are property authorities. But the statute is aimed at private companies doing business in the state of Missouri and not local governments.

Fitch said he modeled his proposal after Missouri law and federal statutes.

“Unfortunately neither of those apply to St. Louis County employees,” Fitch said.

Fitch’s whistleblower protection bill has had its first reading and Fitch is confident the bill will be adopted, possibly in an amended form, in the near future.

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