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Feds Seek Max Sentence For Stenger, Say Corruption Scheme Started Before He Took Office

Former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger walks out of federal court after pleading guilty to federal charges of bribery, mail fraud and theft of honest services.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, seen in this May 2019 file photo, could face nearly four years of prison time for a pay-to-play corruption scheme.

Updated at 5 p.m., Aug. 4 with response from Stenger's attorney —

Federal prosecutors say former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger should get the maximum prison term allowed — nearly four years — for a pay-to-play scheme that began even before he took office in 2015.

In a pre-sentencing memo filed Friday, prosecutors said Stenger, through his extensive criminal conduct, abused voters' "trust in a substantial and harmful way. He placed his own personal interests and political ambitions above all else, and engaged in a classic illegal pay-to-play scheme in order to fill his own political coffers to fuel his political campaigns.”

U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry will sentence Stenger on Aug. 9 — federal guidelines call for three to nearly four years in federal prison, although Perry is free to ignore the guidelines and the memos.

Stenger pleaded guilty in May to funneling county business to a campaign donor, John Rallo, in exchange for thousands of dollars in contributions. Rallo has also pleaded guilty to his role in the scheme and will be sentenced in October.

The sentencing memo makes clear that the scheme started before Stenger was even sworn in for his first term, and that it continued for the entire time he was in office. 

Federal prosecutors also say Stenger was not interested in being county executive beyond how he could help himself. They say he was “checked out,” focusing on his own re-election and a failed plan to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County that would have put Stenger in charge of a metro government. 

"How 'bout that motherf---ers? I don't show up to the Council meetings. I don't do f---ing s---. I've been sitting at my house for the past two months f---ing raising money and then won by 20%! The world's a f---ed up place." - Steve Stenger

The memo quotes Stenger as telling his executive staff in a private conversation on Nov. 7, 2018, following the general election: “How ‘bout that motherf---ers? I don’t show up to the Council meetings. I don’t do f---ing s---. I’ve been sitting at my house for the past two months f---ing raising money and then won by 20%! The world’s a f---ed up place.” 

Prosecutors say Stenger “let his drive for personal political gain control his actions, as opposed to doing what was in the best interest of St. Louis County,” often threatening to retaliate against county employees who ignored his wishes. For example, he tried to fire the director of administration, Pamela Reitz, because she resisted efforts to direct insurance contracts to Rallo.

He also threatened to hold up legislation authorizing upgrades to the convention center in downtown St. Louis if a well-known minority contractor, who is not named, was going to be involved.

“We’re not going to advance our bill if [contractor] is anywhere near this thing, it’s not happening,” the memo says, quoting a Dec. 3 conversation he had with senior staff. “Not. His f---ing Mom did commercials against me. If we let that go, we’re just the f---ing pussies of the universe. It’s not going to happen. It sends a message to him. F--- you. And to her, f--- you. He just lost out on probably 2% of a giant project. I mean, literally, that’s 7 million dollars to him.”

On Sunday, Stenger's attorney Adam Fein filed a memo suggesting that Stenger serve no more than 37 months in prison. It said Stenger "has lost the livelihood he worked his way through school to earn, is the subject of public opprobrium, and is an object of regular public scorn - some based on fact, but some most assuredly not."

The memo contended that Stenger presided over some positive policy developments in county government, such as the implementation of a prescription drug monitoring database and the passage of a sales tax hike for law enforcement. It also pointed to pro bono work that Stenger did as a private attorney.

"He made choices that violated federal law, abused the trust of his constituents, and adversely affected county government. This court will sentence him for those wrongs," the memo states. "Yet, in that same time, his administration made positive contributions to the community."

The memo also notes that Stenger paid $130,000 in restitution. It adds that Stenger "accepted responsibility early on, pled guilty within eight days of his indictment, and worked towards resolution of his case well before he was indicted — steps that reflect his regret and spared the government scarce prosecutorial resources."

In their pre-sentencing memo, federal prosecutors called those actions, as well as giving up his law license, “nothing extraordinary.”

“In a public corruption case such as this, removal from public office or resignation from one’s elected position is the ordinary and inevitable result,” prosecutors wrote. “Similarly, a practicing attorney who commits these types of crimes will have his license suspended and will be barred from the future practice of law.”

County Council letter rips Stenger

In addition to the prosecutor’s recommendations, the court also made public letters from the St. Louis County Council, the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, the St. Louis County Port Authority and the county’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority. Some of the letters painted a shocking picture of Stenger’s behavior.

The letter signed by County Executive Sam Page and the rest of the council described Stenger as a disengaged and boorish presence in county government. It said his “former staff members are left feeling betrayed, used, demoralized, and disillusioned.”

"The defendant rarely appeared in his office, and would be absent for weeks at a time. He did not respect the dignity of his office. When he did come to work, he typically arrived late in the day wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and a baseball hat, and then he would immediately close the door and spend much of the day playing video games in his office before leaving early." - A letter signed by St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and the rest of the council.

“The work atmosphere the defendant embraced was more that of a fraternity house than an elected official's office,” the letter states. “The defendant rarely appeared in his office, and would be absent for weeks at a time. He did not respect the dignity of his office. When he did come to work, he typically arrived late in the day wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and a baseball hat, and then he would immediately close the door and spend much of the day playing video games in his office before leaving early.”

The letter went onto say that “on at least three different occasions, each involving a different female employee, the defendant was present during instances of sexual harassment or learned of the instance shortly after the conduct occurred, but the defendant never took investigative or disciplinary action to rectify the situation.”

The letter continued: “Literally laughing in the face of overt sexual harassment by campaign contributors and reporters, the defendant encouraged an atmosphere where victims were without a voice and felt that they could not go to the county executive to report inappropriate behavior.”

The memo from the federal government said Stenger pondered trying to get Page fired from the hospital where he was working as an anesthesiologist. 

Stenger’s campaign for re-election revolved heavily on derisively tying his Democratic opponent, Mark Mantovani, to former Republican Gov. Eric Greitens — who resigned from office after being accused of sexual misconduct and campaign finance improprieties. 

Council presiding officer Ernie Trakas said the letter was important so the court understands the type of individual with which it’s dealing.

“From a broad perspective, one lesson everyone should learn: people with the franchise, that is citizens with the right to vote, need to be engaged in and with their government,” said Trakas, R-South St. Louis County. “You certainly need to be on top of the issues and take the time to vet a candidate. Don’t just accept the advertising or mailers or party identification.”

Councilman Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County, said it was important to point out in the letter how Stenger violated his oath of office — and the trust of county residents.

“And he was a master at disguising who he was both internally and personally,” Fitch said. “And I don’t blame the voters for falling for it, because he was a con man. It was pretty obvious he conned the voters into voting for him.”

Read the prosecutors' sentencing memo and exhibit 1:



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Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.