El-Amin pleads guilty to accepting bribe
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 24, 2009 - State Rep. T.D. El-Amin, D-St. Louis, noted today that his last name means "trustworthy."
But he acknowledged, in his case, "Trust has been broken."
El-Amin offered his own experience as a cautionary tale to current and future politicians, after he pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to one felony count of soliciting and accepting a bribe.
The charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000, but the recommended punishment in El-Amin's case is 18-24 months in prison and $2,100 in restitution.
Sentencing is set for Dec. 14.
Standing outside the courthouse, El-Amin said he had submitted his resignation from his legislative seat. The governor's office, however, said Thursday afternoon that it had not yet received the letter.
El-Amin added that he hoped his troubles served as a lesson to other elected officials about "crossing the line," and he hoped that young people considering politics wouldn't be dissuaded by his missteps.
Court documents said that between March 1 and June 1 of this year, El-Amin met a number of times with the owner of a gas station and convenience store in his district; the owner was identified only as John Doe.
In the meetings, which were recorded on audio and video, the station owner said he was being subjected to nuisance citations and summons by the city, and blamed a dispute with his alderman, who is not identified.
The documents said El-Amin agreed to help the owner deal with the problem in exchange for a series of payments totaling $2,100. The tape recordings recount haggling over the amounts during different meetings, generally held in the legislator's local office.
El-Amin is quoted saying at one point that money was "not something I'm very comfortable talking about."
"I absolutely don't talk dollars in this office,'' El-Amin said.
The businessman replied, "$500 OK?"
El-Amin then took the money.
At one session, El-Amin feared that his office was bugged, so he exchanged notes with the businessman that detailed how much money he wanted. But El-Amin didn't know that there also was a hidden camera that recorded their actions, including what he wrote on the notes.
As part of the deal, El-Amin promised to arrange a meeting between the businessman and an unidentified city department head who, according to El-Amin's statements in the court documents, also expected to be paid. (The meeting was never held.)
At a news conference after the court proceedings, John Gillies, the FBI special agent in charge of the St. Louis office, and Deputy U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith declined to say why the alderman and city department official were unidentified and not charged.
Gillies did indicate that more cases like that of El-Amin likely will be forthcoming. Gillies said that since his office set up a special unit to combat official corruption, an increasing number of witnesses have come forward complaining they have been taken advantage of by public officials.
"We'll continue to weed out corruption," Gillies said, adding that it "takes a lot of courage" for the public to cooperate with authorities.
Noting that he has heard of some examples of harassment of witnesses in such cases, the local FBI chief added:
"Anyone found harassing our witnesses will be dealt with."
Characterizing such cases as involving "greed" and "stupidity," Gillies said his office would continue working "to make sure politicians out there do what they are supposed to be doing."
Gillies added that the public should "not accept this as a way of doing business'' with elected officials. "Government offices are not for sale,'' he said.
The Missouri Republican Party issued a statement noting that El-Amin "is the fourth St. Louis-area Democrat who has admitted violating federal laws> in the past two years — following State Sen. Jeff Smith and State Reps. Steve Brown and John Bowman. Whether the efforts of Smith and Brown to lie to federal investigators, Bowman’s role in a credit card kickback scheme, or El-Amin’s acceptance of bribes, these actions are wrong and cannot be tolerated.”
Afterwards, El-Amin told reporters that he hopes they would respect his privacy and his family. He said instead of his case being the focus, people should concentrate on more important issues confronting the public -- such as failing public education and the lack of health care.
His attorney, Paul D'Agrosa, said he had been hired by El-Amin just a week and a half ago and that the now-former legislator was not cooperating in any other federal investigations.
"This is it," D'Agrosa said, as El-Amin strode off down the sidewalk.
As we reported earlier ----
State Rep. T.D. El-Amin, D-St. Louis, is scheduled to appear in federal court at noon Thursday.
The court docket at the federal Eagleton Courthouse shows that El-Amin is to appear for a waiver hearing before Judge Henry Autrey. Such an appearance usually means that a guilty plea is about to entered.
Neither El-Amin nor his lawyer has returned calls inquiring about his legal problems, and what charges he might face.
But the court appearance may shed light on why El-Amin, who has had a radio show, opted to drop out of contention several weeks ago in the Democratic jockeying for the 4th District state Senate seat. The nomination ended up going to 28th Ward Democratic committeeman Joseph Keaveny.
Legal trouble also could explain why he quietly resigned earlier from his post as 1st District Democratic committeeman.
If he leaves the state House, he would be the third area legislator forced to resign because of federal legal problems in less than a month.
As of this afternoon, a spokesman for Gov. Jay Nixon said no resignation letter from El-Amin has been received. The governor receives such documents when the Legislature is not in session.
Ironically, the 4th District state Senate post became open -- and will officially be filled in a Nov. 3 special election -- because of federal legal problems that forced the resignation of state Sen. Jeff Smith of St. Louis and state Rep. Steve Brown, D-Clayton.
Their guilty pleas in federal court last month were linked, because both pleaded guilty to felonies in connection with Smith's unsuccessful 2004 bid for Congress.
El-Amin's legal problems aren't related -- but the upshot could well be the same. If he pleads guilty to federal charges, he must resign his legislative post.
Sources say the case against El-Amin may involve financial payments, and that a wire and hidden camera were involved in collecting evidence. KMOX reported on that angle last Friday.
El-Amin was first elected to the state House in 2006, succeeding his wife, Yaphett El-Amin, who ironically lost to Smith in the 2006 contest for that 4th District state Senate seat.
T.D. El-Amin has been among the supporters of charter schools and some voucher programs, as alternatives to the city's troubled public schools.
He's not the first in his family to face legal problems and prison. His father-in-law, political activist Eddie Hasan, is in prison on tax evasion problems.