Veryl Riddle: Bootheel roots, corporate clout
Most St. Louisans never heard of Veryl L. Riddle. When he died Dec. 6, 2011 at age 89, there was hardly a mention in the press.
But Veryl Riddle was one of the leading lawyers of the second half of the 20th century in St. Louis -– a small-town attorney from Missouri’s Bootheel who became the confidante of corporate titans and helped build Bryan Cave from a boutique law firm of 27 into an international powerhouse of 800 lawyers.
Colleagues, friends and associates of Mr. Riddle will gather at 11 a.m., Tues. Feb. 21 at the Top of the Met, 211 North Broadway, to honor Mr. Riddle’s memory.
During more than six decades as a lawyer, Mr. Riddle was the friend of federal judges, a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, a U.S. attorney and the chairman of Bryan Cave’s litigation section.
Mr. Riddle was comfortable on the tee at Bellerive and in the corporate suites of McDonnell Douglas Corp., Emerson Electric and Anheuser-Busch Corp. He advised James S. McDonnell, the legendary chairman of McDonnell Douglas Corp., fended off federal agents searching Emerson and dismissed an Anheuser-Busch antagonist’s bid for the old ballpark as so much “Bah, humbug.”
But Mr. Riddle was just as comfortable in his beloved southeast Missouri as the boardroom. He grew up on a farm in the Bootheel, attended a one-room schoolhouse and hung up his shingle in little Malden, Mo., close to the Mississippi River. Corporate counsels with Republican leanings knew to watch out for Mr. Riddle during election season when he pestered them for donations for his Democrats.
Walter L. Metcalfe Jr., a partner of Mr. Riddle, recalled traveling with Mr. Riddle to Poplar Bluff for the funeral of U.S. District Judge Kenneth Wangelin, one of the group of Southeast Missouri judges whom Mr. Riddle knew well. A young associate in the law firm had arranged a white, stretch limousine to drive them to the funeral. Mr. Riddle guided the limo driver to a spot several blocks from the church, circled a few blocks on foot and then walked into the church without anyone noticing the fancy transportation.
During World War II, Mr. Riddle performed counter-intelligence work working undercover among longshoremen in New York. After attending Southeast Missouri and Buffalo University he graduated from his beloved Washington University Law School.
One of his early trial victories was an anti-trust suit on behalf of 50 dairy farmers who showed that dairy companies engaged in predatory pricing.
As President Lyndon Johnson’s U.S. attorney in St. Louis from 1967-69, Mr. Riddle led a campaign of successful prosecutions against two crime bosses.
But his biggest cases were as a corporate defense lawyer at Bryan Cave where he won the confidence –- and the business -– of James McDonnell.
Mr. Riddle argued the famous McDonnell Douglas vs. Green case before the U.S. Supreme Court where he was opposed by well-known St. Louis civil rights lawyer, Louis Gilden. The case involved a “stall-in” of cars at McDonnell Douglas orchestrated by the St. Louis civil rights leader Percy Green. The Supreme Court’s decision in 1973 established the legal standard for judging job discrimination cases.
A few years later, just after Mr. McDonnell’s death, Mr. Riddle helped extricate St. Louis’ biggest employer from a nasty criminal prosecution for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by making payments to Pakistani officials to sell airliners. Four company executives, including James S. McDonnell III, the son of the founder, had been indicted.
Mr. Riddle persuaded Rudolph Giuliani, then third in command in the Reagan Justice Department, to drop the prosecutions of the executives in return for the company admitting that it had violated wire and mail fraud laws.
Mr. Riddle also orchestrated the defense of Emerson Electric when the government conducted a controversial search of its offices as part of a cost-accounting investigation.
Stephen R. Snodgrass, a Bryan Cave lawyer who worked under Mr. Riddle on the case, recalled that Mr. Riddle took an unusual and daring strategy. He admitted to the judge that Emerson was using the accounting method that the government questioned, but pointed out that the government already had all of the documents it needed to make its case.
“The strategy worked and the U.S. attorney agreed to reopening of the plant,” Snodgrass recalled. “This approach runs counter to the normal instincts of a criminal defense lawyer to hunker down and say nothing. It was daring and creative.”
Mr. Riddle’s down-to-earth comment about the bid to buy the old Busch stadium came in 1981 when Anheuser-Busch was fighting with Civic Center Redevelopment Corp. David H. Murdock, a Los Angeles industrialist and financier offered $50 million to buy the stadium and other properties for which August Busch III had offered $35 million.
Mr. Riddle ridiculed the Murdock offer as “Bah, humbug” because it had so many conditions attached. Busch won control of the stadium.
Although Mr. Riddle had once been a federal prosecutor, he believed that prosecutors sometimes abused their power by pressuring grand juries to indict. In one case, for example, he showed that a St. Louis grand jury had not indicted ITT Corp. even though the prosecutor had claimed it had.
As a member of the prestigious American College of Trial Lawyers, Mr. Riddle led successful efforts to change grand jury instructions to limit prosecutorial abuses. His work led to new instructions adopted in 2006 instructing grand jurors on the independence of the grand jury.
Mr. Riddle explained at the time: “The grand jury system was designed to be an independent body that does not belong to any branch of the government. Grand jurors must stand between the government and the person being investigated. They have a duty to ensure that indictments are only returned in circumstances where probable cause exists.”
Mr. Riddle died in Sikeston a year after he retired and one day short of his 90th birthday. He is survived by his wife, Janet Lewis Riddle of Sikeston. Other survivors are his son Veryl Lee Riddle, Jr., of Lewisburg, Tenn.; three daughters and two sons-in-law, Kay and Larry Morrow, of Prescott, Ariz., Jo and Mike McCarver, of Los Altos, Calif., and Jan Riddle, of Memphis, Tenn., and one granddaughter, Joanna McCarver, of San Francisco, Calif.
Author’s note: My first big story as a young reporter in the Washington Bureau of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was the Reagan Justice Department’s decision to drop a criminal case against four McDonnell Douglas executives.
I wrote several dozen stories about the complaints of Justice Department lawyers that political pressure had led to the dismissals. Veryl Riddle, the company’s lawyer, could not have enjoyed the stories. Yet, every time I called, he was gentlemanly and took time to explain the company’s side.
I didn’t hear from Mr. Riddle for the next 25 years until one day he called to say he wanted to nominate me for an award from Washington University Law School, which we both had attended. I was struck by how extraordinary it was at a time when everyone seems at war with the press for this symbol of the corporate bar to recognize the importance of a reporter’s job.