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Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith met with County Council to discuss Stenger's restitution

Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith met with the St. Louis County Council on July 3 to discuss the county's rights as victims of former county executive Steve Stenger. In this photo, he speaks with media following Stenger's first appearance in federal court on corruption charges on Monday, April 29, 2019. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com.

CLAYTON — The St. Louis County Council is preparing a letter to help a federal judge decide how much former County Executive Steve Stenger should pay the county in restitution for his crimes.

The council met for 90 minutes on July 3 in a closed session with Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith, the federal prosecutor who led the Stenger investigation. Goldsmith and the council discussed the county’s rights as a victim, the council’s presiding officer Ernie Trakas said.

Under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004, victims have the right to be heard at any proceeding in the federal court involving release, plea sentencing or parole. Because the council represents the 1 million victims who live in St. Louis County, Goldsmith said, “it’s my obligation to meet with the council as representatives for the victims.”

Goldsmith also met with leaders of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership for about 30 minutes in late June, although Goldsmith and Partnership officials would not say what that meeting was about.

Trakas said in an interview on Wednesday that Goldsmith would not take questions about where the government’s ongoing corruption probe was headed. Trakas said he is working on writing an “impact statement” to be included in Stenger’s criminal file and considered at his Aug. 9 sentencing.

“The idea is to convey with as much poignancy as possible the true impact of Mr. Stenger’s criminal activities on St. Louis County as a whole, on its employees and the taxpayers,” Trakas said. He said the statement would address the human impact, including employees who were forced to choose between following questionable orders or being fired, with consequential loss of experience and skill in the county workforce. It would also focus on services and programs that did not benefit county residents as intended, and the “significant financial impact on taxpayers.”

The council has scheduled a closed session at 8 a.m. Saturday to review Trakas’ draft. Trakas said the council planned to submit the final version by July 25.

Trakas said he did not have a dollar figure in mind yet for how much Stenger should pay but that the statement would “convey the gravamen of his criminal conduct and what it created.” He said he believed after talking with Goldsmith that the court was likely to award restitution only for the specific schemes laid out in the indictment against Stenger.

Restitution for public officials caught in corruption schemes can be steep. In June 2015, Quinshaunta Golden, an official with the Illinois Department of Public Health, was sentenced to 96 months in prison and ordered to pay $1 million in restitution to the department after pleading guilty to issuing millions in falsified grants in exchange for kickbacks.

Stenger pleaded guilty on May 3 to three federal counts in a pay-to-play scheme that could earn him three to four years in prison. The plea says Stenger’s actions caused a loss of between $250,000 and $500,000. Loss calculations can include bribes, the cost of contracts either awarded or sought through corruption, as well as the cost to taxpayers of insider real estate deals.

Stenger admitted involvement in five “schemes” as part of his plea, four involving businessman John Rallo, who had frequently donated to his political campaign. The fifth scheme laid out in the plea involved a company seeking to retain a lobbying contract.

Trakas said the county’s impact statement would go further than the indictment and take a “global approach” to Stenger’s tenure. The council has been focused on investigating the county’s 20-year lease for office space at the former Northwest Plaza shopping center in St. Ann. The owners of the mall, brothers Robert and P. David Glarner, are friends of Stenger who donated $365,000 to his campaign.

Stenger sold the deal to council members as a $10 million saving from the county’s rent at other sites, but the Post-Dispatch analysis, which was published in February 2018, showed Stenger’s staff misled council members. The newspaper found the deal did not save money and had the potential to cost the county millions. The council has said it could legally void any contract if a county official benefited from it, and the Glarners have agreed to renegotiate the terms with representatives from County Executive Sam Page’s office.

The council on July 2 voted in an unprecedented move to force the Glarners to testify about the leases.

The Northwest Plaza lease did not factor into the Stenger indictment, but a grand jury did subpoena documents from the county related to the deal. The Glarners and Stenger have denied any quid pro quo in the decision to move county offices to the St. Ann development.

If the deal were to be considered for restitution, Trakas said, Stenger would owe “untold amounts, in my opinion.”

Jeremy Kohler is an investigative reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.