Clayton, MO – St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell has blown over $30,000 in taxpayer dollars on travel and dining expenses as of Sept. 30 – approximately two-thirds more than his predecessor spent during the same time frame last year.
Bell claimed that much of what he spent went into building relationships with the city’s law enforcement, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
“I think it’s very reasonable to expect an increase in activity when a new administration comes in after a 30-year incumbent,” he told the paper.
Bell also claimed that his first year in office has been a “learning curve” on which expenses are allowed under the county’s policy.
But according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Bell dropped $816.19 during a night out in Miami with six of his staffers in April.
A receipt from Prime 112 restaurant that night showed that the team splurged on a $150 plate of lobster, a $58 veal chop, two $59 racks of lamb, and a $74 ribeye steak.
Then came the beverages and side dishes, as well as a $136.19 tip.
Bell charged the meal to the county, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
After the paper requested expense records, Bell paid the county back for the Miami feast, as well as some other charges he had made.
Although he claimed to have reimbursed the county “immediately” after the high-dollar meal, the check he wrote was dated for June 28 – nearly three months later, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
On average, Bell has dined out with staff or local officials approximately once per week since he took office on Jan. 1.
Approximately half of the reimbursement checks he wrote to the county were dated after the paper requested his expense records.
Those checks included repayment for Uber rides, a hotel charge, and $2,083.66 worth of meals for his staff, among other things.
Bell’s office took three months to respond to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s record request, then sent the paper redacted versions of the information they requested.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis County’s Fiscal Management Office turned over unredacted copies promptly.
Bell argued that the fiscal office shouldn’t have released copies of the expenses he had just reimbursed the county for, but claimed he wasn’t trying to hide anything.
“Trust me, if it’s allowable and by the rules, I’d rather keep the money,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I’m not a rich man.”
Bell took to Facebook on Oct. 26 to tout the “fruit” his spending has produced, and to claim that he “immediately” repaid the county for the “Lobster-gate” incident.
“That was one meal for 8 of our employees and I recognized immediately that [although pre-approved], it wasn’t a good look, and I immediately paid it back [despite what was reported] out of my own pocket, because it didn’t feel right and made me uncomfortable,” he wrote.
“I’ll own that one…and the $800 [I personally reimbursed from my own pocket] will serve as a constant – albeit expensive – reminder of the need to be mindful of my fiduciary duty to my constituents,” Bell added.
But Missouri Press Association legal counsel Jean Maneke noted that the three-month delay in the record release indicated that Bell could have been attempting to conceal personal purchases he had charged to the county, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
“If it was a valid county business expense, it shouldn’t have been paid back,” Maneke pointed out.
St. Louis County Councilman Tim Fitch said that he is concerned about where taxpayer funds are being spent.
“When I hear people buying expensive dinners with tax dollars, what I think about is who needs that money more?” Fitch told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The councilman noted that Bell has also proclaimed that law enforcement officers need to be held to a higher standard.
“Doing something like hiding expenses from the taxpayers doesn’t look like he’s living up to that standard, even himself,” Fitch said.
Bell earns a salary of $160,000, and his office has been operating on a $11.9 million budget this year, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
He said he will be requesting a $13 million budget for 2020.