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Former Economic Development CEO Gets 3 Years' Probation, $20K Fine For Stenger Scheme

Former St. Louis Economic Development Partnership CEO Sheila Sweeney walks out of court after being sentenced to three years probation and fined $20,000 for her role in a corruption scheme. Aug 16, 2019
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Former St. Louis Economic Development Partnership CEO Sheila Sweeney walks out of court after being sentenced to three years' probation and fined $20,000 for her role in a corruption scheme.

Updated at 4:50 p.m. Aug. 16 with comments from attorneys —

Sheila Sweeney, the former chief executive of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, has been sentenced to three years' probation and fined $20,000 for her role in a corruption scheme orchestrated by then-St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.

Sweeney admitted in May that she knew Stenger was trying to steer county contracts to a campaign donor and did nothing to stop it. Sweeney helped that donor, John Rallo, get a $130,000 marketing contract, even though he had no relevant experience. She also maneuvered to make sure that Rallo’s real estate company was able to purchase two pieces of industrial property near the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy. 

U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry could have sentenced Sweeney to up to 10 months in federal prison, according to federal guidelines for the crime, misprision of a felony. 

Justin Gelfand, Sweeney's attorney, noted that she had never been convicted of a crime before and had an extensive history of charitable work. In a pre-sentence memo to the court, her attorneys also asked for probation because she is “the primary caretaker of her 79-year-old husband of 27 years, who is in poor health.”

“Sheila is a wonderful, wonderful person who looks forward to moving on with the rest of her life,” Gelfand told reporters after the sentencing. “She was in a very difficult situation with Mr. Stenger. She’s done the best she could to put this behind her, and we hope you respect her family’s privacy.”

Sweeney did not speak to reporters. She told Perry that she was profoundly sorry for her actions, adding that she will do everything in her power to never appear before a court again.

Perry said she recognized that Sweeney took responsibility for her actions. And given the relatively low level of offense to which she pleaded guilty, Perry said that a sentence of probation was appropriate.

The sentencing memo also urged Perry to put Sweeney’s crimes in context of the scheme.

“To be clear, Sweeney should have refused to follow Stenger’s orders in certain situations and she offers no excuse for acting as she did — but Stenger’s threats and retribution provides a bit of an explanation for why Sweeney acted the way she did,” Sweeney’s attorney, Justin Gelfand, wrote. “The bottom line remains: Sweeney did not conjure up a scheme to benefit herself or her friends; Stenger did.”

Prosecutors agreed that “this was clearly Stenger’s pay-to-play scheme,” but as Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith wrote, Sweeney had a responsibility to “blow the whistle.”

“Had Sweeney simply alerted the various boards to Stenger’s scheme, Stenger’s scheme could not have succeeded,” Goldsmith said, referring to the development partnership and two sister agencies, all of which Sweeney oversaw.

Prosecutors did not ask Perry for a specific sentence, instead suggesting the judge fashion “an appropriately fair and just sentence in this case.” 

In court, Goldsmith told Perry that Stenger effectively bullied her into doing his bidding, noting that he used such abusive language against her that he declined to put those words in public documents.

Sweeney was pushed out as head of the development agency in January, after an investigation by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch raised questions about the way Stenger was using the partnership to steer contracts to his supporters.

Stenger was sentenced last week to almost four years in prison. Rallo pleaded guilty and will be sentenced in October. Stenger’s former chief of staff, Bill Miller, who also pleaded guilty, will be sentenced for his role in the scheme next month.

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