Updated at 5:30 p.m. with comments from the hearing — Former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger has been 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 Friday from U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry, which is the maximum under federal guidelines for Stenger’s crimes, is in line with what prosecutors requested. He was also ordered to pay a $250,000 fine — the highest allowed by law — and will be on probation for three years after serving his sentence.
"This is a sad day, especially for the citizens of the county," Perry said moments before handing down her decision. “You were supposed to be the leader, and it’s very sad when the leader is corrupt. It’s also a very sad day for democracy, because with these kind of corruption cases, the public loses faith in their government.”
Stenger will report to prison in late September, a date he requested so he could be present for the birth of his third child. The baby is due Sept. 13. He has asked to serve his sentence in South Dakota or Florida.
He pleaded guilty in May to three public corruption felonies, having resigned his post a week earlier. Stenger has also surrendered his law and accounting licenses, and paid about $130,000 in restitution. That’s the amount of a marketing contract awarded to the campaign donor, John Rallo, even though Rallo had no marketing experience. The judge did not require any additional restitution.
Stenger did not speak to reporters after he was sentenced. His attorney, Scott Rosenblum, said that Stenger has lived a “very productive life.”
“I have no doubt that he’ll take this period of incarceration to better himself, to continue to take programs,” Rosenblum said. “And when he gets out, as you see he’s a very, very hardworking man who’s been very successful. And I have no doubt he’ll continue to be successful in his next endeavor.”
In court, Stenger told Perry that he was “remorseful” for his actions. He also “heartfully apologized” to the employees and officers of St. Louis County, and added that he hoped incarceration would make him a better person.
Rosenblum had asked the judge to recommend that Stenger be allowed to participate in a substance abuse rehabilitation program, which Perry made clear would be for alcohol, not for illegal drugs. She did not oppose the move, but said she wouldn’t recommend it, either. Participation in the program could reduce Stenger’s sentence.
Prosecutor Hal Goldsmith did not immediately answer a request for comment after the sentencing. But in court, he emphasized to Perry that Stenger’s conduct abused voters’ trust in a “substantial and harmful way.”
"The criminal conduct was breathtaking and ugly,” Goldsmith said. “He didn’t care about whose careers he hurt or whose lives he ruined."
'I wanted them to see justice be done'
Perry normally holds court on the 14th floor of the Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse in downtown St. Louis, but court officials moved Friday’s hearing to a larger courtroom on the third floor. Even then, the space wasn’t big enough — security personnel eventually allowed some of the standing-room-only crowd of nearly 100 people to sit in the jury box.
Stenger’s supporters had no audible reaction when the sentence was handed down, although many of them looked stricken. But opponents of Stenger were pleased with the result.
The courtroom had earlier been the site of a naturalization ceremony, an irony that John Maupin, the chair of the St. Louis County Port Authority, commented on before the hearing started.
“This is a contrast in civics lessons,” he said.
Three members of the St. Louis County Council — Ernie Trakas, Lisa Clancy and Tim Fitch — attended Stenger’s sentencing. St. Louis County Executive Sam Page followed through on his promise on Twitter to not attend, though his chief of staff Winston Calvert was present.
Fitch called the sentence “a healthy dose of justice.”
"I do think the victims of this corruption, the 1 million people of St. Louis County, can rest assured that our government does still work right,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s been a lot of damage done, and it’s going to take us years to recover from that damage. So I look forward to moving on at this point, and moving forward.”
Trakas and Clancy declined to comment.
Chris Grahn-Howard, a legislative assistant for Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, said he would have liked to have seen a stiffer sentence levied against Stenger. But he says Perry likely stayed within the sentencing guidelines to prevent Stenger’s attorneys from appealing the sentence.
“I brought my kids down here to see this today. Not so much as a glory moment or historical moment — I wanted them to see justice be done,” Grahn-Howard said. “I wanted them to see that people that betray the public trust this way are going to get punished.”
End of the road
Stenger’s sentencing marked an ironic end to the Democrat’s political career. He based his successful 2014 primary campaign against then-County Executive Charlie Dooley on promises to “clean up” government, accusing Dooley of incompetence and corruption.
Before Perry imposed her sentence, Goldsmith alluded to Stenger’s campaign kickoff speech in 2013 in which he attacked Dooley for problems in his administration and promised to restore confidence in county government.
Stenger came into office with great promise after narrowly beating Republican Rick Stream in the general election. He had most of the County Council aligned with him — giving him an opportunity to reshape county government for years to come.
But that support faded relatively quickly after two of his allies were replaced with adversaries after the 2016 election. The council began aggressively questioning his administration, including whether county contracts were awarded based on campaign contributions. And the federal indictment zeroed in on how donations influenced Stenger’s decisions to give county contracts to Rallo, who has also pleaded guilty and will be sentenced in October.
In addition to Rallo, Sheila Sweeney, the former head of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, pleaded guilty and is likely facing a year in prison when she is sentenced next week for knowing about the pay-to-play scheme and not taking steps to reveal it. Bill Miller, Stenger’s former chief of staff, pleaded guilty in late May to aiding and abetting bribery, and will be sentenced in September.
The federal investigation, which lasted nearly a year, included the review of thousands of emails and text messages — as well as court orders that authorized wiretaps or other forms of electronic monitoring. A member of Stenger’s executive staff appears to have worn a wire, which captured conversations that prosecutors said made clear that Stenger was not interested in being county executive beyond how it could benefit himself.
The prosecution sentencing 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.”
Before sentencing, Rosenblum said those comments captured Stenger’s “bravado” and acknowledged that those words “certainly portrayed him in the least positive light.” But he also said that Stenger had done a lot of good throughout his life and career — including handing over his socks to a homeless person who was wearing sandals in freezing weather.
Rosenblum also said the comments captured on the wire were made to some of his closest friends when he was under attack by his political enemies, adding that it would be difficult to find many people who didn’t say unsavory things in private in moments of frustration.
Goldsmith, though, said Stenger’s comments were made to his staff — not his friends while playing poker. He also said Stenger’s words showcased that “he knew what he was doing was wrong, but he didn’t care.”
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum
Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann
Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org