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O’Fallon Council finds itself embroiled in more controversy as city heads toward municipal election

Action on a bill calling for an investigation of O’Fallon council member Katie Gatewood (Ward 5) has been postponed until after the April 6 mayoral election.

The bill (No. 7298), sponsored by council member Dale Kling (Ward 3), proposes retaining special counsel Joseph G. Lauber to assist the council in conducting an investigation into the accuracy and circumstances of certain statements made by Gatewood and her conduct in the course of a confidential personnel matter, which has been linked to the hiring of Police Chief Phillip DuPuis.

The council ratified the hiring of DuPuis by a voice vote during the public portion of the Jan. 14 council meeting. However, in a closed executive session on Jan. 7, Gatewood along with council members Debbie Cook (Ward 5) and Deana Smith (Ward 1) voted against ratification. On Jan. 14, just prior to the voice vote, Gatewood said that concerns were brought to her by O’Fallon police officers that she said she believed should be vetted and proven false and inaccurate prior to hiring DuPuis.

To date, Gatewood has not released the names of the officers with whom she said she has spoken – an issue that is at the heart of the proposed investigation. [Editor’s note: An article about DuPuis’ appointment can be found here.]

Accusations and debate

Prior to Bill 7298 being tabled, both citizens and elected officials spoke for more than an hour about the proposed investigation, accusations of corruption within the city, the use of social media aimed at the city and election-year politics.

The scene for the March 25 council meeting was dramatically different than the March 11 meeting at which the bill received its first reading. At that meeting, most audience members appeared to be in support of Gatewood and against the bill. However, of the approximately 55 people in the council chamber on March 25, about 45 were O’Fallon police officers and their supporters. Based on their applause and cheers, all appeared to be in support of Bill 7098, DuPuis and the council. Approximately 20 people seated in the multi-purpose room behind the council chamber viewed the meeting on closed-circuit TV.  That audience was a mixture of residents, citizen comment speakers and O’Fallon Police officers.

Among those speaking was resident Kevin Wattelett, who said he was “unhappy beyond belief that there is a bill sitting on the agenda with a council person’s name on it.” According to city records, no O’Fallon City Council has ever investigated one of its own before.

“There has to be a better way for you all to get along with some common sense solution to a common sense problem,” Wattelett said.

Russ Gatewood, council member Gatewood’s husband, spoke in support of his wife and reiterated the bill was retaliation, aimed at getting Gatewood to give up the names of officers who allegedly made claims against DuPuis.

However, both Mayor Bill Hennessy and council member Jeff Kuehn (Ward 4) disputed Mr. Gatewood’s claims during their public remarks.

“In a closed meeting, you said you wanted an investigation (of DuPuis),” Hennessy said to council member Gatewood. “You seconded the motion, and the vote was 9-0; it passed. You voted for it. We held a closed meeting, listened to a recording where you and Russ said the investigation would be killed if you gave up the names. You agreed to do that. But on social media what (Russ) is saying is that the council is forcing you to give the names in order to hold the ordinance.”

Mayor Bill Hennessy addressing the council (Source: O’Fallon TV)

Hennessy claimed that Russ Gatewood and Cook, who is also a mayoral candidate, are posting on social media that the city is corrupt.

“There have been a lot of accusations on social media for a while,” Hennessy said. “Councilwoman Gatewood, you have made accusations against a city employee, which the city takes very seriously. These were investigated and found to be false.

“A while back council member Cook sent out a text that there is corruption here at city hall. I talked to council member Cook and asked her to bring out the proof of corruption. Her response was that she did not proofread the whole text (of the social media post), and she would remove it,” Hennessy said. “Now, three weeks before the election, the same statements are being spewed. From the (Jim) Peppers to the (Arnie C.) Dienoffs to Mr. Gatewood posting this garbage.”

Referring to comments made earlier in the evening by Russ Gatewood and Arnie C. Dienoff, Hennessy challenged, “If you folks that are posting this (have proof), call the FBI and have them investigate your allegations. We as the elected body of the city of O’Fallon will not, repeat not, tolerate corruption.”

During his public comments, Russ Gatewood said, “I can tell you federal investigators already have been notified. Because of COVID and the backlogs, we don’t know when they’ll be here. But they will be here. You can’t cover-up everything.”

Claiming that he also is the subject of an investigation by the city, mayoral candidate Arnie Dienoff said, “It is sad and I’m crying on the inside with an all-out attack on me personally, my family, the Gatewood family and Katie Gatewood, by our chief of police, by certain city council members, by the mayor, city administrator and the city attorney.”

He described the presumed investigations as “sickening, degrading and a violation of our civil rights.” 

“This will be investigated by the United States Attorney’s Office, the FBI and the Missouri Highway Patrol,” Dienoff said. “A complaint will be filed with the Missouri Supreme Court. This (investigation expense of) $275 per attorney hour, $75 per hour support services, plus expenses, is over $100,000 of our money, and I ask that you vote no on this ordinance.”

The charges

“In this instance, we have a person on the council who has leveled charges against the new police chief that are not corroborated,” Kuehn said. “An investigation was demanded (by Gatewood), but witnesses were not provided, nor any evidence upon which to conduct the investigation. Still, the allegations were investigated to the best of the city’s ability to do so, and given the circumstances and with the exception of a poor choice of words in mixed company, have shown no merit.”

In regard to the investigation proposed in Bill 7298, Kuehn said, “This is a conduct investigation. Something that is not mentioned in the ordinance is that no one is trying to remove a council person with this ordinance. We’re trying to get to the bottom of the facts. Nothing more, nothing less.” 

Kuehn also said Gatewood is not a whistleblower, as some have called her. She is the person to whom a whistleblower should report the facts needing investigation, he said. Then, she should report those facts to the rest of the council.

“Despite all evidence to the contrary, narratives continue unabated that the majority of this council is corrupt,” Kuehn said. “For some unknown purpose that we’re in cahoots. That somehow this is retaliation. From what? It makes no sense. (Gatewood) done nothing wrong to us. So I don’t understand the accusation of retaliation.”

Ward 4 council member Dr. Jim Ottomeyer said Kuehn “pretty much summed up most of the items I probably would have had on my list.”   

“There’s been many things stated recently on social media from individuals who are using leaked closed session information to slander city employees, our police chief, our police department, the council and the mayor,” Ottomeyer said. “I’m saddened by the total disregard that some have exercised with regard to the oath of office we took when we entered into our positions as elected officials.

“Because the majority of the individuals in these closed session meetings take this oath very seriously, you’ve probably noticed on social media there has been very little response. Up until tonight. I think it shows you we are done. The accusations that have been levied are false. I would like to assure the residents of O’Fallon that most of the things that have been stated on social media are nothing more than artful, spun, twisting of reality. I will not tolerate lies, deceptions, and/or manipulation of anyone with these pursuits. Nor should the residents of the city of O’Fallon.”

Resident Brian Compton also indicated that residents may be getting tired of the in-fighting taking place in O’Fallon. During his public comments, he called the proposed investigation “a waste of time from beginning to end.”

“You guys gave him his job,” Compton said of DuPuis. “It’s done. The use of city funds to continue an investigation over something that seems ridiculous, I don’t understand. I see it as a dividing line between the current mayor, somebody who wants to be mayor, and her BFF, and to bring up a dividing line between all of the people who are going to be electing somebody. That’s about it. It’s grandstanding.

“On behalf of everybody who is sitting in the middle and is getting tired of seeing these divisions and this ridiculousness of a bunch of adults acting like 5-year-olds, we need to be done.”

O’Fallon council member Katie Gatewood (Source: O’Fallon TV)

Gatewood’s response

In her response, Gatewood said, “I never wanted the stress, scrutiny and financial impact that has come with standing up against the deep-seated corruption, but we are here now and I’m not backing down. Because these police officers, their careers and their families deserve what I’m doing.

Continuing her claim that crimes have been committed, Gatewood, a former police officer herself, attempted to play recordings of two conversations that she said violate Missouri Revised Statute 576.020, which states: “A public servant commits the offense of acceding to corruption if he or she knowingly solicits, accepts or agrees to accept any benefit, direct or indirect, in return for his or her: Official vote, opinion, recommendation, judgment, decision, action or exercise of discretion as a public servant; or Violation of a known legal duty as a public servant. The offense of acceding to corruption by a public servant is a class E felony.”

She played the recordings from a small, portable tape player. The sound was not clear enough to be heard or understood by very many people on the council dais or in the audience, even after a second try.

“I’ve just shown you two crimes, Class E felonies,” Gatewood said to the numerous police officers in the audience. “Who has the courage to take my report? Who’s going to act? I am a victim.” 

An audience member, presumably a police officer, shouted, “1019 Bryan Road, the Justice Center.”

Gatewood responded, “I agreed to an investigation. That’s true. By the Highway Patrol. I agreed to a resolution … I never agreed to an ordinance where my name will be put on it.”

She called on St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Tom Lohmar “to come forward and be the investigative body because he is the lead law enforcement agency in the county.”

“I never wanted this,” Gatewood said. “I never wanted to hurt anyone, but I’ll root out corruption in O’Fallon. You can put anyone in front of me. But I’ve gotten more emails and more texts messages from employees of the city, saying, ‘Stand, don’t back down.”

She closed her remarks by saying to the audience of mostly O’Fallon police officers, “Since no one here is willing to take my report (and the recordings), I’m going to excuse myself from the dais, because obviously none of you know what it means to be a police officer. None of you.”

As she left the room, there were numerous boos, catcalls and some applause. 

Defending DuPuis

In a nod to election politics, council member Dave Hinman (Ward 1) pointed to Russ Gatewood’s Facebook posts.

“It’s the last line of most of his posts, if you’ve seen them, (saying) that there is an election coming up in two weeks. In my opinion, this is a huge political deal. It didn’t happen until four weeks before the mayoral election,” Hinman said.

Council member Lisa Thompson (Ward 2), reading a statement, said, “It’s really important that I get this right. Over the last three weeks, I’ve witnessed a handful of citizens defame and mischaracterize the city leadership, primarily on social media. … What these few individuals are doing to this city, its employees and its elected officials is not right, and I strongly condemn their actions. … They are intentionally skewing and exaggerating bits and pieces of information in an attempt to convince the public that their government is corrupt.” 

Thompson encouraged all residents to “ask lots of questions and don’t just take someone’s word for things, just because of their background, education or work history.” She then expressed her strong support for Chief DuPuis. 

“Despite what has been said about his hiring process, he was subjected to interviews and background checks, just like everyone else,” Thompson said. “It is frustrating to me that so many of us have been dragged into this, despite having done nothing wrong. It is my hope that we can work swiftly to get to the bottom of this mess, and put it behind us, once and for all.”

Council member Tom “Duke” Herweck (Ward 2) also expressed his support for DuPuis as did Donald Van, president of Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 15, who during the evening read a prepared statement on behalf of the organization’s members and in support of the chief.

In his remarks, Herweck said, “What I do know for a fact also, is that Chief DuPuis, I support you 100%. I believe you’re the leader and the man we need to lead this department. 

“I told you on the night you were appointed that you’ve got good men and women in this department, but you have a few that are infecting it. Who are they, I don’t know. I just know it needs to be taken care of. You are shaking those trees. You need to stay strong and keep shaking those trees. Those bad actors, they’re running. They’re causing disruptions. They’re causing chaos. They’re being clowns on social media.”

Herweck also said he had concerns about the proposed investigation of Gatewood.

“This whole process has been eating at me for weeks,” he said. “There are certain things in this ordinance and this process that I’m not sure of. As Mr. Wattelett said earlier in his citizen comments, there may have been a better way to go about it. I have some issues, concerns with some of the language that’s in the ordinance and with the engagement letter for the attorney, along with some potential costs.

“I do know for a fact that I am tired of this baloney, this B.S., this high school mentality going on right now. Mr. Compton said it best: ‘It’s time for us to start acting like adults.’”

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