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Former St. Louis aldermen sentenced in corruption scheme

From left: Former St. Louis Aldermen John Collins-Muhammad (21st Ward), President Lewis Reed and Jeffrey Boyd (22nd Ward) pleaded guilty in August to accepting cash, cars and other gifts in exchange for helping a developer get incentives.
Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
From left: Former St. Louis Aldermen John Collins-Muhammad (21st Ward), President Lewis Reed and Jeffrey Boyd (22nd Ward) pleaded guilty in August to accepting cash, cars and other gifts in exchange for helping a developer get incentives.

Updated at 9 p.m. Dec. 6 with comments from the defendants, judge and others

Three former St. Louis aldermen will spend between three and nearly four years in federal prison for their roles in a corruption scheme around development incentives.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Clark handed down the sentences Tuesday to former board President Lewis Reed, former 21st Ward Alderman John Collins-Muhammad and former 22nd Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd. All three pleaded guilty in August to accepting cash, cars and other gifts in exchange for helping a developer get incentives.

Reed and Collins-Muhammad were each sentenced to three years, nine months in prison. Boyd will spend three years behind bars — his sentence was lighter because the amount of money he accepted meant his crime was considered less severe under federal sentencing guidelines.

Each man will face three years of supervised release and have to pay back the “ill-gotten gains” from the scheme. For Reed, that means an $18,500 fine. Collins-Muhammad will have to pay back $19,500 and Boyd $23,688.

All three of the sentences were just below the maximum set out in those guidelines and well above the sentences of probation that attorneys for all three had requested.

Federal prosecutors had asked Clark to stay within the guidelines, which called for prison terms of 2½ to about four years.

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Former Alderman John Collins-Muhammad (21st Ward) walks alongside his wife Asia, left, as he enters his sentencing court hearing related to federal corruption charges on Tuesday outside the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Collins-Muhammad, looking haggard in a slim-fitting gray suit, was the first to appear in front of Clark shortly after 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. His family, along with the Rev. Darryl Gray, sat in the front row of the courtroom.

Collins-Muhammad told Clark he had not been able to sleep since he “made the choice to do what I did.”

But, he said, he came to appreciate getting caught by Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith, who has investigated public corruption in St. Louis for more than a decade.

“It made me take a hard look in the mirror,” he said. “I am not the elected official that I wanted to be.”

Boyd, wearing a blue suit with a blue striped tie, stepped in front of Clark shortly after 3 p.m.

“The facts are, Your Honor, I screwed up,” he said.

He teared up multiple times while addressing the court, especially as he apologized to his wife and children, who were seated in the front row.

In addressing his separate insurance fraud case, Boyd confirmed the name of the businessman at the center of the three indictments, as well as a separate case in St. Louis County.

Boyd said he first met Mohammed Almuttan in August 2020 and eventually accepted car repairs and cash from him.

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Former Alderman Jeffrey Boyd (22nd Ward) walks alongside his wife Patrice Johnson-Boyd on Tuesday after being sentenced to three years in federal prison outside the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Boyd said he later came up with the insurance scheme out of guilt for not offering to pay for those repairs. In that scheme, he lied about the ownership of several vehicles damaged in an accident at a used car lot in Jennings owned by a relative of Almuttan’s so the company that provided insurance to the used car business, Best Place Auto Sales, would cover the cost of that damage. Boyd also admitted to inflating the insurance claim in order to make additional money. The agency, based in North Carolina, never paid out on the claim.

“To suggest that it was bad judgment would be kind,” Boyd said of the insurance fraud scheme. “It was very stupid, and I regret it every day.”

Boyd also helped Almuttan arrange to purchase a tract of city-owned land at 4201 Geraldine at a price well below what the city was offering.

At the time of his interactions with Boyd, Reed and Collins-Muhammad, Almuttan was facing his own legal troubles. He was sentenced in October to four years in federal prison for selling contraband cigarettes but is appealing that sentence.

Reed’s family, including his wife, Mary Entrup, and his two sons, were in the courtroom when Boyd received his sentence. But that did not reduce their shock when Reed took his turn in front of Clark. Entrup, as well as many of Reed’s former staff from his days as board president, left the room as soon as the 45-month sentence was announced.

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Former Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed walks into his sentencing hearing alongside his attorney Scott Rosenblum on Tuesday outside the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Reed, in a black suit with a light-colored, patterned tie, fidgeted while seated, often digging his nails into the tabletop. He often leaned his elbow on the podium as his attorney, Scott Rosenblum, addressed the judge, though he stood up straight when it was his time to speak.

“No words can express my remorse to my family and to those who supported me and trusted me,” he said. “My unprecedented body of work has stood as a source of pride for my family. All that changes now.”

Reed urged residents of St. Louis to separate their “just indignation” at the actions by him and his former colleagues from city government at large.

None of the men’s former colleagues at the Board of Aldermen attended the marathon hearing, which was moved from Clark’s usual courtroom on the 14th floor to a larger one on the third floor to accommodate the crowds that gathered to observe.

“The approximately 300,000 residents of St. Louis, and the multitude of individuals who operate businesses in the city, all depended upon the defendants to do the right thing as their elected officials, and to provide them with their honest services,” Goldsmith wrote in the government’s sentencing memo. “Through their continuing criminal conduct these defendants abused their positions of trust in a substantial and harmful way.”

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Courtesy
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U.S. Attorney's Office
Lewis Reed, former St. Louis Board of Aldermen president, accepts cash on May, 6, 2021, in a court filing image used as evidence.

In his remarks to the court and the defendants, Clark referenced the distinction between a “statesman and a politician.”

Statesmen, he said, have “stress of the soul,” because they consider the impacts of their actions and want to know that they are doing the job ethically and fairly. But politicians, he said, are not burdened by considering the impact.

“What troubles me the most was the ease with which you committed these crimes,” Clark said.

The government’s pre-sentencing memo included photos of all three men accepting cash from the developer, identified only as John Doe. In one photo, Reed, dressed in a suit, appears to be wearing a pin that identifies him as a member of the Board of Aldermen.

In requesting probation, attorneys for the men cited their difficult backgrounds. Lenny Kagan, in a sentencing memo for Boyd, revealed that Boyd was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder that had led in the past to suicidal and homicidal thoughts.

Reed, wrote attorney Adam Fein, overcame a childhood and early adulthood that included child abuse, parents struggling with substance use disorder and periods of being homeless.

Muhammad, wrote Joseph Flees, was a survivor of a “hard childhood” that included being kidnapped as a 1-year-old by his biological mother’s drug dealer.

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
Former Alderman John Collins-Muhammad (21st Ward) climbs into a vehicle after being sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison on Tuesday outside the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Defense attorneys also argued that losing political careers and having to start over was punishment enough, especially for Reed and Boyd, who had both spent the better part of two decades at City Hall.

In addition to receiving prison time, Reed, Boyd and Collins-Muhammad were fined $18,500, $23,688 and $19,500, respectively — the value of bribes and other items they received. Under state law they will lose any pension they earned after Aug. 28, 2014.

In a statement, Mayor Tishaura Jones said the sentences held the three accountable “for the pain they have caused our communities.”

“These crimes have victims: Their families, who are suffering; their constituents, whose interests they put aside in pursuit of personal profit; and our entire city, which was shaken by the brazenness of the trio’s corruption,” she said.

In 2019, former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger was sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison for steering county business to a campaign donor in exchange for thousands of dollars in contributions. The 46-month sentence was the maximum under federal guidelines.

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Brian Munoz
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St. Louis Public Radio
The Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse is shrouded by fog on Tuesday in downtown St. Louis.

Pleas for leniency and for justice

Before Tuesday's hearing, dozens of political and community figures weighed in on what they thought was an appropriate sentence for the aldermen.

Lawrence O’Toole, who served as interim chief of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department for eight months in 2017, wrote in support of leniency for Reed and Collins-Muhammad.

“Like everyone, I was shocked at the allegations of wrongdoing,” he said, adding it “did not comport” to the individuals he knew.

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Former Alderman Jeffrey Boyd walks with his family on Tuesday before his sentencing at the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Boyd’s attorneys submitted character letters from several current and former aldermen, as well as state Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis. But the comments of other aldermen, mostly from the progressive wing of the party, and the mayor were part of the government’s push for prison time.

Among those vouching for Reed’s character were Jeff Rainford, chief of staff to former Mayor Francis Slay; the former clerk and legal counsel of the Board of Aldermen, David Sweeney; former parks commissioner Gary Bess; and officials of the teachers and firefighters unions.

Reed’s youngest son, Max, who has enlisted in the military and expects to deploy to Poland next year to support Ukraine's war effort, also requested leniency. He asked the judge to allow his father to serve a sentence of home confinement.

“I don’t want him to be locked away for the time I have with him before I must leave for over a year,” he wrote. “I know this is a selfish reason, but I just want to cherish the time I have with him.”

Former state Sen. Jeff Smith, who spent a year in federal prison for lying about his role involving an illegal campaign mailer during the 2008 race for U.S. Senate, was among those asking Clark to go easy on Collins-Muhammad.

“John was not in denial when he called months ago to explain his situation and seek counsel,” Smith wrote. “He described his mistakes, and understood there would be severe consequences. Of course, he was pained by what those consequences would mean for his family.”

Collins-Muhammad’s wife, Asia, outlined what she saw as the consequences in her letter to the court.

"As someone who has experienced sexual abuse as a child and abandonment issues from my mother, trusting others isn’t high on my list. John has shown me how much I mean to him,” she said. “He has shown up for me in ways that no one ever has. Losing that sense of security would be devastating to my family and I.”

She added that raising six children, four of whom live in their shared house, would be difficult without her husband’s support.

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, former St. Louis Alderman, right, walks out of the Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse after pleading guilty on federal corruption charges on Aug. 23 alongside his wife Asia, center, and attorney Joseph Flees, left, in downtown St. Louis.

On the opposite end, some residents of the 21st Ward urged Clark to throw the proverbial book at their former alderman.

One of the schemes to which the men pleaded guilty involved tax abatement for a gas station and convenience store at 5337 Von Phul, near the southeast corner of O’Fallon Park.

Collins-Muhammad had pushed for the gas station over the objection of residents of the neighborhood. A longtime resident, Teri L. Rose, wrote that neighbors had been fighting a gas station there for years.

“A gas station is a forever crime magnet,” Rose wrote. “As soon as one third-generation family found out that the gas station was going in, they moved. Stability. That’s what Collins-Muhammad’s actions destroyed.”

She said a sentence of 10 to 20 years would have been more appropriate for “destroying a neighborhood.”

Rose also spoke at the hearing

Another 21st Ward resident, Amber Cole, also urged a harsher sentence.

“We lost a ‘vote’ in our community,” she said. “We lost a leader. We lost tax dollars, just to name a few. I request you hold him accountable for the trauma that he imposed on our community.”

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

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