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El-Amin sentenced to 18 months in prison on bribery charge

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 6, 2010 - Former state Rep. T.D. El-Amin, D-St. Louis, was sentenced today to 18 months in prison, two years of supervised release and $2,100 in restitution after pleading guilty in September to one federal 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.)

During Friday's court proceedings, El-Amin's lawyer, Paul D'Agrosa, asked for a shorter sentence. Among other things, the lawyer cited El-Amin's donation of a kidney to his father, and service in the U.S. Navy.

But the federal prosecutor, Hal Goldsmith, argued against a lesser sentence. He noted that El-Amin had been court-martialed in the Navy, then served four months in the brig and received a less than honorable discharge.

Judge Henry Autry made some particularly harsh remarks to El-Amin before handing down the sentence, which was the minimum suggested under federal guidelines. The judge said he was offended by some of the letters he'd received supporting El-Amin because they downplayed the seriousness of the offense.

"When you strip away all the material things, all we have -- and all we really need -- is embodied in the Constitution," the judge said. "...You stomped on it. You stomped on the people you represent. You spit on" them.

Autry then took note of the praise by letter-writers, and others, who cited El-Amin's political promise before the bribery incident. Looking sternly at the defendant, Autry said "This one act, Mr. El-Amin, flushed all that down the veritable political toilet."

As he left the courthouse, El-Amin made no excuses for his predicament. "You break the law, you break the rules, you pay the consequences. I resigned my position. I didn't resign my love of the community."

El-Amin's sentencing comes just a day after another local disgraced Democrat, former state Sen. Jeff Smith, reported for prison in Kentucky. Smith pleaded guilty last August to two federal felony counts in an unrelated case.

El-Amin is the fourth St. Louis-area Democrat who has admitted violating federal laws in the past two years, a fact that concerns the party and has prompted lots of GOP jabs.

Last fall, El-Amin offered his own experience as a cautionary tale to current and future politicians.

El-Amin's conviction stems from his actions last spring to seek money from a businessman who had sought his help with a dispute with some at City Hall.

Court documents said that between March 1 and June 1 of last 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 Wednesday's sentencing, Goldsmith sought to underscore the case's solid nature by presenting the judge with large prints of photos taken from one of the videotapes.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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