Updated at 1:30 p.m., May 3 with plea hearing details and comments from officials — Former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger pleaded guilty Friday to three counts of public corruption for steering county contracts to campaign donors andfaces prison time when he is sentenced in August.
Based on the offense level calculated in his guilty plea under federal guidelines, Stenger could get around three to four years in prison. Judge Catherine Perry emphasized she’s not bound by those guidelines, and set Stenger’s sentencing for Aug. 9. He will also be required to pay restitution. Although the exact amount isn’t clear it could be several hundred thousand dollars. The maximum sentence is 20 years and a $250,000 fine on each count.
Perry accepted Stenger’s guilty plea on charges of bribery, mail fraud and theft of honest services. The 44-page indictment made public on Monday accused Stenger of steering county contracts to his campaign donors and political supporters.
Stenger spent most of the hearing standing at a lectern with his attorney Scott Rosenblum. He methodically answered Perry’s questions, including whether he was aware that his guilty plea would void any opportunities for appeal. Under the deal, Stenger also avoids additional prosecution relating to exchanging campaign contributions for contracts.
Rosenblum told reporters after the plea that “obviously today was a very difficult day for Steve and his family.”
“On the other side, Steve has many, many things for which he’s very proud — especially in his role as a private lawyer and the countless amount of people he’s helped,” Rosenblum said. “Today was obviously not one of those proud moments. But he has completely accepted responsibility for his lapses in judgment and his conduct while in office as county executive.”
Stenger did not say anything to reporters as he got into an SUV near the courthouse. One woman who was watching the press scrum yelled: “I voted for you and you betrayed me — and the trust of people.”
In a statement, Richard Quinn of the FBI’s St. Louis Division, said, "Steve Stenger benefitted himself at the expense of St. Louis County citizens by accepting financial gain in exchange for official action.
"The FBI will continue to investigate and hold accountable public officials who betray the trust of the St. Louis communities they serve,” Quinn said. “Our citizens deserve nothing less."
Reversal of fortune
Stenger’s plea brought a conclusion to a week that brought seismic change to St. Louis County government.
When Stenger ran for St. Louis County county executive in 2014, he accused his Democratic primary opponent of incompetence and corruption — promising to “clean up” government with a supportive county council.
And when his support on the council withered away, he blasted his legislative adversaries for getting in the way of his agenda.
Stenger’s tenure as county executive ended on Monday, when he resigned from office several hours after the indictment became public. He served as county executive for a little over four years, and was four months into his second term in office when he stepped down. Sam Page, his bitter rival on the county council, took over as county executive on Monday.
After narrowly winning the county executive’s race over Republican Rick Stream in 2014, Stenger came into office with great promise. 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 off of campaign contributions. And the federal indictment zeroed in on how donations influenced Stenger’s decisions to give county contracts to businessman John Rallo who has not commented since the indictment was announced.
Page told reporters on Tuesday that the indictment and Stenger’s subsequent resignation should be a sobering parable for how the county moves forward.
“What surprised me was the apparent comfort of exchanging contributions for decisions,” Page said. “It seemed to be almost mechanized and comfortable. And I don’t think very many elected officials would like to see that or be in the middle of that or be near it. And I know that folks that were in county government were very uncomfortable with it. A lot of people left. A lot people tried to step back from it if they could.”
Hal Goldsmith, an assistant U.S. attorney, said the year-long investigation included interviews with people inside and outside of county government. He also said it included the review of thousands of emails and text messages — as well as court orders that authorized wiretaps or other forms of electronic monitoring. Goldsmith said on Monday that the investigation remains ongoing, and did not rule out future indictments.
Greg Willard, an adjunct professor at St. Louis University School of Law, said Friday that the obvious depth and breadth of the investigation should scare anyone who may have been attempting to illegally influence county business.
“They’re having a really bad day,” he said. “The Stenger plea is a big deal, but the LED lights at 10,000 watts is not that there’s a lot of shoes to drop, but there’s a lot of boots that are going to drop.”
Read the 19-page plea agreement:
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