Ex-St. Louis County chief Stenger gets nearly 4 years in jail

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Steve Stenger, once among the most powerful elected officials in Missouri, was sentenced Friday to nearly four years in prison for orchestrating a pay-for-play scheme.

Stenger, 47, the former St. Louis County executive, pleaded guilty in May to federal corruption charges for providing political favors, including a county contract, in exchange for campaign donations. He was sentenced to three years and 10 months in prison and fined $250,000.

Stenger’s fall from grace was swift. His indictment was announced April 29, and he surrendered his law license and resigned that same day. Stenger, a Democrat, pleaded guilty four days later to three counts related to bribery and fraud.

“Public service is a public trust,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith said in a statement after the sentencing. “Through his illegal pay-to-play scheme aimed at filling his own political coffers, the former county executive shattered that trust.”

About 1 million people live in St. Louis County, making it Missouri’s largest political jurisdiction.

Three others also pleaded guilty as part of the scheme — Stenger’s chief of staff, Bill Miller; businessman John Rallo, who donated to Stenger’s campaign with the expectation that his companies would get county contracts; and Sheila Sweeney, whom Stenger appointed as head of the county’s economic development agency.

Stenger’s sentence was at the high end of the federal range. He could have gotten as little as three years and one month.

Stenger’s attorneys had sought a term at the short end. A pre-sentencing memo filed by attorney Adam Fein cited Stenger’s positive contributions to society, including a prescription drug monitoring program that has been so successful that other Missouri counties have joined in on it as part of an effort to prevent overprescribing of opioids.

The memo also pointed to Stenger’s quick guilty plea as an indication that he accepted responsibility for his crimes, and the fact that he has paid $130,000 in restitution.

But Goldsmith, in his own pre-sentencing memo, said Stenger abused the trust of his constituents “in a substantial and harmful way” and deserved no leniency.

Rallo faces sentencing Oct. 15. Sweeney’s sentencing is Aug. 16, and Miller’s is Sept. 6.

Rallo admitted having given Stenger tens of thousands of dollars in donations with the understanding that his companies would get contracts. Stenger admitting having taken actions to ensure that county contracts went to two Rallo-owned companies — Cardinal Insurance and Cardinal Creative Consulting — and ensuring that Rallo’s Wellston Holdings LLC obtained options to buy two properties.

Sweeney, former head of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, admitted that he had helped to cover up the scheme. Miller admitted that he had pressured Sweeney to renew a state lobbying contract with a company and its owner who had donated $59,000 to Stenger.

Stenger’s activities had been under scrutiny since at least last year. Goldsmith has said that investigators monitored or recorded several meetings and phone calls and obtained call records, including emails and texts.

Stenger defeated incumbent Democrat Charlie Dooley in the 2014 primary and won that year’s general election. Even under the cloud of investigations, Stenger fought off a strong challenge from businessman Mark Mantovani in the 2018 Democratic primary and won easily in the November general election.

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