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St. Louis Aldermanic President candidate Green questions Coatar's 'appalling' conflict of interests

Alderman Jack Coatar's work as a corporate attorney faces scrutiny as he runs to replace a Board of Aldermen President who resigned under federal indictment

ST. LOUIS, Missouri — The candidates running to become St. Louis' next Board of Aldermen President are already running against -- or away from -- the cloud of corruption hovering over the office after the U.S. Attorney's Office brought bribery charges against former president Lewis Reed, and former aldermen Jeffrey Boyd and John Collins Muhammad last month.

The matchup between Megan Green, a democratic socialist with a doctorate in education, and Jack Coatar, a corporate attorney whose firm represents business developers, has already revived fresh debate over the value and virtue in giving government incentives to private businesses for the purported public good.

"I have been on the forefront of this issue since nearly as soon as I got elected," Green said. "I got elected to the Board of Aldermen and I very quickly realized that we were conducting business on behalf of big developers and big corporations and not acting in the interest of everyday people and taxpayers in the city."

Federal prosecutors said they caught Reed and the other two Aldermen on tape taking cash bribes from developers in exchange for using their government positions to dole out lucrative tax breaks. The FBI quoted audio records where Boyd allegedly told the undercover informant he supported the deals because he was "pro-business."

Coatar has made a similar argument in defending the use of TIF deals, or Tax Increment Financing proposals, that underwrite private development projects with public taxes. 

"I think [Green] has a fundamental misunderstanding of how development works," Coatar retorted. "I think her record shows that she's voted against some of the most successful development projects in this city."

Green opposed development deals designed to protect and grow public and private sector jobs at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and at Square, the smartphone credit card processing application company.

Green confesses she's "a little bit more to the left of the mayor on some of our development decisions," but adds, "I am politically aligned with the mayor."

Last Thursday, Mayor Tishaura Jones, who came into office and clashed repeatedly with former Board President Reed, declined to say which candidate she'd prefer to see win the upcoming race.

"I'll keep that to myself," she said, laughing.

Coatar said his political alliance with former President Lewis Reed was well established, but that he was "disappointed" when he learned of the bribes detailed in federal charging documents. Reed should "pay the price for what he did," Coatar said. 

Coatar signed his name, along with Collins Muhammad, onto a lawsuit challenging the Jones-backed 'Proposition R,' a popular good-government measure that banned sitting members of City Hall from conflicts of interest. Coatar argues the restrictions on outside employment in the measure go too far. 

The ethics law "says you can't have any outside employment that causes any sort of conflict," Coatar explained. "It also makes it impossible for members of the Board of Aldermen to vote on any issue where someone as far distanced as their cousin might have some interest."

In Coatar's case, it wasn't his cousin that had interest in a city proposal. It was his client. 

According to emails obtained by 5 On Your Side, Coatar used his law firm's email to reach out to the former mayor's Deputy of Development in January of 2020 and discuss "anticipated incentive requests" for Cullinan Properties, an Illinois-based developer that had pursued a construction project at the intersection of Grand and Chouteau in Midtown.

In February of 2020, Coatar again emailed Mayor Lyda Krewson's aides to arrange access for his law firm Spencer Fane's client to the mayor's office.

Once the meeting was set in the mayor's calendar, Coatar notified her aides that "Rob Lochner of Cullinan Properties will be joining us." Lochner was the company's vice president of development at the time, according to his LinkedIn page.

The city's TIF Commission approved a plan to provide $60.6 million in taxpayer funds to build onto Cullinan Properties' $335 million dollar project -- enhancing prime real estate in Midtown with a public parking garage, upgrades to roads, intersections, and other infrastructure to help access the site's stores, restaurants, offices, luxury apartments and a hotel.   

Does Coatar see anything inappropriate with arranging a meeting between the mayor and one of his law firm's clients to discuss city business?

"I don't think so," he replied. "I mean, if I have clients that I represent that have business in front of the city, if I'm just simply setting up a meeting, I don't see any issue there."

"That's wholly inappropriate," Green disagreed. "I'll be frank and say that I'm appalled by that, but I'm not surprised."

"I don't think that makes Alderman Coatar a bad person, I think it makes him a very busy attorney," she said. "Quite frankly, we need somebody at the president of board who is going to be focusing on serving taxpayers in our city, serving residents in our city, and not serving their developer."

Coatar's work nearly paid off. The deal was lined up for a vote when COVID-19 hit. Then, with little explanation, it was off. He never had a chance to vote on it, and says if it came up, he would've abstained. But his involvement in arranging the meetings to discuss the project resemble the work of a lobbyist and run afoul of the spirit of the ethics reforms the city adopted in Proposition R.  

While none of the available evidence suggests Coatar ever used his official position to advance the interest of his clients, his instinct to abstain from voting on measures important to their bottom line shows his awareness of the perceived conflict of interest.

Green argues conflicts like those could hobble a Board of Aldermen President and prevent them from carrying out all the duties that come with the job.

"You elect me, you know you're getting a Board of Aldermen President that does not have these rampant conflicts of interest," she said. 

"Why maintain an appointment at a law firm, or why be President of the Board of Aldermen, if you're going to have to abstain on so many votes?" she asked.

Coatar said he'd consider stepping aside from his private law firm if he wins, though he wouldn't be able to make that determination until after the election.

"We'll look at that," he said. "I mean, if we're if we're successful in this election, then I'll have to take a look at what the workload entails and whether or not it makes sense to continue private practice."

Coatar pledged to "run a campaign talking about the issues," such as crime, public safety and improving city services. 

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