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Former Alderman Collins-Muhammad admits his role in bribery scheme

John Collins-Muhammad, former St. Louis Alderman, right, walks out of the Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse after pleading guilty on federal corruption charges on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, alongside his wife Asia Collins-Muhammad, center, and counsel Joseph Flees, left, in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
John Collins-Muhammad, a former St. Louis alderman, right, walks out of the Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges on Tuesday alongside his wife, Asia Collins-Muhammad, and counsel Joseph Flees in downtown St. Louis.

A former St. Louis alderman has admitted to his role in a bribery scheme connected to development incentives.

John Collins-Muhammad, 31, stood in front of U.S. District Judge Stephen Clark Tuesday and pleaded guilty to bribery and racketeering charges. He accepted campaign contributions, cash and other gifts, including cell phones, in exchange for passing legislation granting a tax abatement for a proposed gas station in his ward.

Collins-Muhammad will be sentenced on Dec. 6. Federal guidelines call for him to receive a sentence between 2 ½ and 4 years in prison. He will be required to pay restitution, though the two sides are still working to determine the exact amount. In addition, state law requires him to forfeit the pension he earned over his five years in office.

The two other aldermen named in the scheme – Jeffrey Boyd and former Board President Lewis Reed – will both plead guilty on Friday.

Collins-Muhammad, wearing a black suit with a gray shirt and a red pocket square, sat with his eyes closed and his head resting on his hands while waiting for the hearing to begin. He answered the questions from Clark with “Yes, sir,” or “No, sir.”

“How do you wish to plead?” Judge Clark asked shortly after 4 p.m. “Guilty, your honor,” Collins-Muhammad responded.

He did not speak to reporters as he left the courthouse with his wife, Asia Collins-Muhammad.

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
John Collins-Muhammad, former St. Louis Alderman, looks to the media after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges on Tuesday outside of the Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

The investigation into the scheme stretched over 2 ½ years, and included recordings of hundreds of meetings and telephone calls, court-ordered search warrants and the review of thousands of text messages and emails. The indictment painted a picture in which Collins-Muhammad and his co-defendants required the developer, known as John Doe, to essentially pay them before taking any of the legislative steps necessary to secure incentives.

In pleading guilty, Collins-Muhammad admitted that over the course of two years, he accepted $13,500 in cash, about $3,000 in campaign contributions, as well as a car and a cell phone, from John Doe. He also agreed that he had been the one to introduce John Doe to Reed and Boyd, his two co-defendants, as well as to an unnamed public official who allegedly could have helped John Doe get contracts.

As part of the deal, the federal government has agreed not to prosecute Collins-Muhammad for any further conduct related to the scheme.

In a statement, Mayor Tishaura Jones said the corruption scandal had shaken the faith St. Louisans have in their government.

“It’s time to turn the page on the past and move on from the failed status quo,” she said. “I am ready to work with the Board of Aldermen in the coming legislative session to help rebuild trust by enacting development incentive reform that improves transparency, promotes community involvement, and eliminates conflicts of interest.”

The St. Louis Development Corporation, which helps distribute and approve development incentives, has already promised to make changes to its processes.

Collins-Muhammad will be allowed to remain out of jail before his sentencing. His attorney, Joseph Flees, told the court that Collins-Muhammad has been working long hours at an Amazon warehouse in the Metro East, as well as at a Macy’s department store, in order to be able to provide for his family should he go to prison.

St. Louis Alderman John Collins-Muhammad stands near the street where Jason Stockley killed Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011
Carolina Hidalgo
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St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Alderman John Collins-Muhammad, center, stands near the street where Jason Stockley killed Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011 on Sept., 15, 2017, near North Pointe.

Collins-Muhammad initially gained prominence during the 2014 protests after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. He took his first run at elected office in 2016, losing a close Democratic primary for state representative to Steve Roberts, the eventual winner.

At the age of 25, Collins-Muhammad was one of three Democrats who ran for the vacant 21st Ward seat in 2017, after Antonio French decided to run for mayor. He beat the ward’s Democratic committeewoman, Laura Keys, by 29 votes, becoming the youngest elected official in city history, and was re-elected by a much wider margin in 2021. Keys will replace Collins-Muhammad on the board when it resumes in September.

Collins-Muhammad was a close ally of Reed’s during his time at City Hall. Early on, he earned the respect of his fellow Black aldermen when, during his first term in office, he was selected to chair the chamber’s Black caucus. He was a staunch opponent of the effort to reduce the Board of Aldermen from 28 to 14 members, contending it would diminish Black political power in the city. And for several years, he pushed to force the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to expand the number of police districts.

But Collins-Muhammad also encountered his fair share of controversy. In 2014, when he was an employee of Uplands Park, a tiny city in north St. Louis County, Collins-Muhammad reportedly told Fox News that Brown’s shooting was a “set up” and a “publicity stunt” by the police, who he said operated just like the Ku Klux Klan. He was arrested in 2018 for outstanding warrants, most relating to driving on a suspended or revoked license. And he was one of the loudest voices advocating for the lease of St. Louis-Lambert International Airport, saying the potential one-time payment could be a huge boost to his constituents.

Collins-Muhammad has at least one child with Asia, who is his second wife. He also has a child with his ex-wife, Latrice Dunger.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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