St. Louis police chief defends himself in car investigation

Tuesday, July 22, 2008 | 7:34 p.m. CDT; updated 7:40 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ST. LOUIS — St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa defended himself Tuesday amid concerns about his role in a scandal involving seized vehicles, admitting to errors in judgment but saying he did nothing wrong.
At a hurriedly called news conference, Mokwa read from a prepared statement but did not answer questions, citing the continuing investigation.
“I have done nothing wrong or improper,” Mokwa said. “In all instances I’ve been truthful in my responses and conversations.”
Last week, the department announced that an internal investigation had found problems with the system St. Louis uses to impound vehicles seized as evidence, but no criminal wrongdoing. But now, media reports that the U.S. Attorney’s office in St. Louis is joining the investigation are raising questions about how much Mokwa knew.
For years, the department contracted with S&H Towing to take vehicles seized during arrests. If those vehicles weren’t claimed, the towing firm, through its sales subsidiary, sold them.
Police revealed that the firm allowed many officers to borrow the vehicles, sometimes for weeks at a time. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mokwa’s daughter, Aimie Mokwa, crashed one of the seized cars during Labor Day weekend 2002, and S&H Towing continued to allow her to use more vehicles until this spring when Mokwa ordered the company to stop.
Tuesday, Mokwa said his daughter, in her mid-30s, has struggled for years with emotional and substance abuse issues. “I love my daughter and have great compassion for her personal struggles,” the chief said. But he said he did nothing to help her gain use of a car through S&H.
Police Board President Chris Goodson said Monday that the board may discipline Mokwa for his conduct.
Goodson said Mokwa didn’t disclose to investigators that he knew his daughter had gotten free use of several cars from the company. He only revealed it over the weekend, after the investigation was closed.
Mayor Francis Slay wrote on his blog that he finds the incident “troubling,” and that the questions it raises “must be answered clearly and publicly.”
Slay said he would withhold judgment until Mokwa has spoken.
“I think he has earned that much respect,” Slay said.
Slay said he supports turning the matter over to U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway.
The prosecutor said Tuesday she couldn’t comment on any federal investigation.
“We can’t comment on whether there is an investigation going on, has been going on, will be going on,” she said.
Hanaway did say that an investigation into the matter by a private law firm “was a very surprising way to handle it given the fact there are taxpayer supported resources that could more thoroughly handle it, including the FBI, the highway patrol and others.”
Mokwa was appointed chief in May 2001. He joined the police department in 1971. The chief oversees a department with 1,400 officers and about 600 civilian employees.

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