Jaco: The buzz about Lacy Clay’s possible ties to the Stenger Indictment

Someone named Clay has represented the City of St. Louis in the U.S. House of Representatives for 51 years. Rep. Bill Clay, first elected in 1968, was succeeded by his son, current Congressman Lacy Clay, in 2000.

Both men championed causes close to the heart of their liberal urban constituency—civil rights, environmental protection, health care, and worker’s rights. Bill Clay was never seriously challenged during his 34 years in the House. Since he took office, Rep. Lacy Clay has never gotten less than 70 per cent of the vote in any general election.

In fact, the only electoral scare the younger Clay ever got was in the 2018 Democratic primary, when activist Cori Bush ran against him, part of the new wave of insurgents in the Democratic Party that includes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But unlike so many other entrenched Democratic politicians ousted in their primaries, Clay and his formidable political organization racked up almost 58 percent of the vote.

Rep. Clay, who gained national attention with his relentless grilling of ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen during February hearings by the House Oversight Committee, is not mentioned, by name, anywhere in the indictment of ex-St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger. But he is mentioned.

And those allusions to Clay in the 40-page indictment charging Stenger with three federal felonies have been seized upon by gleeful Republicans, worried Democrats, and a few not-so-worried Democrats, both online and IRL (social media shorthand for “in real life”).

Take the black elected official from inside Clay’s Congressional district who said, the day Stenger pleaded guilty, “Lacy’s done.”

The African-American officeholder would only amplify by smiling enigmatically and saying “He won’t be on the 2020 ballot.”

That would seem to be news to Congressman Clay, who’s reported to the Federal Election Committee that his re-election campaign raised $145,000 in the first three months of this year. Most of that would probably be spent fending off a renewed primary challenge from Bush, who says she’s going to run against Clay again next year.

But private comments like the elected official’s, along with the barrage of social media speculation ranging from “Has Lacy Clay lawyered up yet?” and “Did Stenger flip on Clay?” on Twitter, to “If Clay gets nabbed, it’ll set off a generation shuffle in STL politics” on Facebook, have created the one thing our new media age is best at: doubt.

So what are the facts?

The indictment refers to a “J.C.” and a “public official”. Four sources with knowledge of local Democratic politics identify “J.C.” as John Cross, a former activist with the now-defunct community organizing organization ACORN, a former official with the Service Employees International Union, and now a political consultant and operative who has worked closely with Congressman Clay. Those same sources say the “public official” named in the indictment is Rep. Lacy Clay.

In the indictment, the feds say Stenger funneled what turned out to be $25,000 to Cross through John Rollo, an insurance man and Stenger donor who got County business due to his donations to Stenger’s campaign.

Page 20 of Stenger’s indictment reads, “JC was a close associate of a public official who helped Stenger get out the vote in the November, 2014 County Executive election, and Stenger’s direction (to John Rollo) to hire JC or give JC a contract was payback for that….JC was anxious to get payback for his and the public official’s efforts on behalf of Stenger.”

Stenger needed those efforts badly in 2014. Black Democrats in North County organized a campaign to vote for Republican Rick Stream, because of Stenger’s campaign against then-County Executive Charlie Dooley in the 2014 Democratic primary. Angered at what they saw as Stenger’s racist attacks on Dooley over “corruption”, especially since the FBI decided that Stenger’s corruption claims against Dooley were baseless, the insurgent black Democrats almost pushed Stream to victory.

Clay, who had endorsed Stenger, staged a mammoth get out the vote effort in November, 2014, that managed to get Stenger over the finish line, but just barely, as Stenger beat Stream by only 1,845 votes out of 290,000 cast. The difference was the Clay voter drive, managed by John Cross.

According to text messages the federal indictment highlighted on page 21, Cross was upset that as of April, 2016, there had still been no payback. Cross texted ex-Stenger aide Shannon Weber and vented. He said he had been in Washington DC for two days, meeting with Congressman Clay and Darryl Piggee, who was then Clay’s chief of staff and who now practices law and helps run Clay’s political action committee.

“I am in DC for a conference and spent the last two nights with (Clay) and (Piggee). Both of them asked me a couple of times what happened with our conversations in December (about some sort of payback), I told them nothing had happened….it’s totally rude and disrespectful. When Stenger asked (Clay) for help, all of us were there for him, so you know.”

That paragraph seems to intimate that Congressman Clay and his chief of staff both might have been aware that Stenger was supposed to create some sort of no-show position, or give some kind of payment, to Cross for the work Clay had done for Stenger’s campaign.

That one item would be enough for the FBI to question Congressman Clay, since it hints that Clay might have had direct knowledge of the payment to Cross. Other parts of the Stenger indictment that might be linked to Clay, including how Clay’s former special assistant, Lou Aboussie, was hired by the Stenger administration in 2016, are more circumstantial.

But pages 20 and 21 of the Stenger indictment explain why rumors are flying. Rep. Clay’s spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment on this article. But Clay’s office did send a statement to the Post-Dispatch that reads, in part “I have no knowledge of, or any involvement with, any relationship (John Cross) may have had with Mr. Stenger of St. Louis County government.”

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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