Updated at 3:30 p.m., May 2 with reactions from officials and legal experts — Former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger will plead guilty on Friday to federal corruption charges — just four days after his indictment was announced.
Stenger was charged Monday with steering county contracts to a major campaign contributor. He resigned the same day.
The accusations, laid out in detail in a 44-page indictment, centered around five schemes to “defraud and deprive the citizens of St. Louis County of their right to [Stenger’s] honest and faithful services,” as prosecutors put it in a release on Monday. They include:
- Working to try to get Cardinal Insurance, led by Stenger supporter John Rallo, insurance contracts from the county in 2015 and 2016;
- Securing a 2016 contract for Rallo’s consulting company, Cardinal Creative Consulting, to work with the St. Louis County Port Authority;
- Making sure that Rallo’s company, Wellston Holdings LLC, had the inside track to purchase two pieces of land, one in 2016 and one in 2017;
- Directing a state lobbying contract for the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership to an unnamed company in exchange for campaign donations
Stenger faces 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Stenger also plans to surrender his Missouri law license. His attorney, Scott Rosenblum, confirmed that Stenger was pleading guilty but didn’t comment further.
County officials react
Stenger’s successor, Sam Page, said in a statement that Stenger’s guilty plea “is proof that the justice system works.”
“Mr. Stenger betrayed the trust that St. Louis County residents placed in our government,” Page said. “I am committed to reforming county government so that pay-to-play politics never infects it again.”
Prosecutors said on Monday that the investigation, which started in 2018, was ongoing. They did not rule out future indictments. County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, said she wouldn’t be surprised by any future indictments.
“I think there’s probably more to come,” Clancy said. “I hope that Mr. Stenger realizes and understands the consequences of his actions and the impact this has taken on St. Louis County and our whole region.”
Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, noted: “The quick turnaround speaks to the significance of the evidence they have against Mr. Stenger, and perhaps some cooperation on his part in terms of future indictments. Because I do believe there will be other indictments.”
Another Council member, Hazel Erby, said no one should be celebrating the news.
“I am still reeling from the announcement of the indictment on Monday,” said Erby, D-University City, who had been a frequent Stenger critic. “This has not been a good time. I don’t rejoice in this happening. I never expected it to be like this.”
Republican Tim Fitch, a councilman and former St. Louis County police chief, said it was “sad news” that Stenger’s wife and young children would have to spend some time without their husband and father if he goes to prison.
“I still wonder what would lead someone that seemingly had everything going right for him down this path,” Fitch said.
A speedy resolution
Some legal experts said the short time between the indictment and the plea is not surprising, especially in public corruption cases.
“A lot of times in public corruption cases, you’re dealing with people who, they may be good politicians, but they’re not particularly good crooks,” said Greg Willard, an adjunct professor at St. Louis University School of Law. “So I think, putting a very broad brush on it, very often, the FBI and the United States attorney and the postal inspectors are able to make a pretty comprehensive case that on its face is compelling for a conviction."
In Stenger’s case, the indictment included verbatim exchanges among Stenger, his staff and Rallo.
Ida Shafaie, a former Greene County prosecutor who now works at Armstrong Teasdale in St. Louis, agreed that the quick plea is likely an acknowledgement of the strength of the government’s case.
“The person who is pleading guilty may be doing so in exchange for cooperation and ultimately potential leniency in sentencing, or leniency in perhaps not facing additional charges,” she said.
Peter Joy, a law professor at Washington University, said it’s likely that negotiations between Stenger’s attorney and federal prosecutors have been going on for much longer than a week.
“One indication was that shortly after the indictment was made public, Stenger resigned,” Joy said. “Typically, that’s something the government wants as part of a plea arrangement. A lot of people who are familiar with the criminal justice system suspected that maybe something was in the works.”
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