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Steve Stenger leaving court

Former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger leaves the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse after Stenger pleaded guilty to pay-to-play charges on Friday, May 3, 2019. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

Honorable Catherine D. Perry

Senior Judge

U.S. District Court

Dear Judge Perry,

As you know, it is a longstanding practice in St. Louis that when people connected to public officials are to be sentenced for their crimes, powerful friends send letters to their federal judge, vouching for their character or seeking leniency.

A few years back, when he was still the St. Louis County executive, Steve Stenger wrote such a letter to you, on behalf of a nephew of a donor who had been convicted of being a drug dealer. In light of Mr. Stenger’s guilty plea on Friday to three felonies involving a wide-ranging “pay-for-play” scheme that involved directing his underlings to award “sham” contracts to his campaign donors, this is such a letter.

I met Mr. Stenger more than six years ago around the time he was considering running for the county executive position. I was immediately struck by his engaging personality and interaction with reporters. I would soon learn that Mr. Stenger was also very good at providing such customer service to his donors.

So, many of them received the contracts they hoped for when they wrote checks to his campaign.

He’s a giver. Please remember that.

Mr. Stenger realizes he has committed serious crimes. He told you that multiple times on Friday. And consider how much he’s grown since he got caught by Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith trying to steal from taxpayers for his own benefit and that of his friends. Remember, just a couple of years ago, he was caught on a recording saying this about reporters:

“You can’t talk to the f---ing press. I bent over f---ing backwards for you, and I asked you one simple f---ing thing, don’t talk to the f---ing press. And I’m telling you, you’re gonna f---ing kill yourself, alright, you’re gonna kill yourself with this shit.”

That’s not what happened Friday. After we watched him walk out of the federal courthouse with his attorney, Scott Rosenblum, Mr. Stenger stood before reporters and cameras and said nothing. When I asked him whether he was cooperating with the ongoing federal investigation, he simply ducked his head and walked away.

I’d call this progress.

Mr. Stenger seems to understand and accept full responsibility for his criminal actions but also is aware that he must disassociate from those who would participate in illegal activity. This, of course, brings me to a point. When you think about it, none of this was solely Mr. Stenger’s fault. Think back to that dinner with John Rallo — his donor and alleged conspirator — that was arranged at Sam’s Steakhouse by Sorkis Webbe Jr.

You remember Mr. Webbe. He did about five years in federal prison for extortion and voter fraud in the late 1980s related to a cable franchise investigation. Webbe’s father, Sorkis Webbe Sr., had been indicted in a federal tax fraud scheme related to the mob and casino kickbacks in Nevada. The elder Mr. Webbe died before he went to prison. But during his case, the federal judge received several letters from big shots vouching for the longtime Democratic political operative. One of them came from Thomas Eagleton. He was a U.S. senator at the time. Now his name is on your courthouse.

But I digress. In Mr. Stenger’s indictment, Mr. Webbe is referred to only as “SW.”

Long ago, SW got out of prison, got into business, and apparently made some friends, like Gary Bess, the parks director whom Mr. Stenger would later appoint. A big part of Mr. Bess’s job seemed to be to find jobs for some of Mr. Stenger’s friends.

Again, the man gives until it hurts.

Anyway, it’s hard to saddle Mr. Stenger with all the blame for going down this felonious route with friends like SW, and a Democratic machine in the city that apparently has a history of such pay-for-play shenanigans.

Finally, judge, this is a man who loves his family. So much so, that not long ago, he arranged for his top fund-raiser, Dave Tilley, to get his wife a job. Tilley is the guy who would pick up the checks from Mr. Rallo. It turns out, he also runs a local fire district, which just a few months ago hired Mr. Stenger’s wife, Allison, to do its legal work. It’s good that she’ll have some income while he’s away.

The guidelines you announced on Friday indicate Mr. Stenger might be in prison for three to four years. Here’s the part of the letter where, if I understand how these things are done, I’m supposed to ask for leniency. Frankly, four years seems sort of poetic.

As Mr. Stenger left your courthouse, one of his voters, dressed in red, shouted at him. “I voted for you,” she said, “and you betrayed me.”

That voter, it seems, helped Mr. Stenger win a second four-year term. Let him serve it behind bars.

Sincerely,

Tony Messenger

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