Updated at 4 p.m.
ST. LOUIS — Bill Miller, chief of staff to former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, was sentenced Friday to 15 months in federal prison, followed by three years of probation for his role in pay-to-play schemes. He was not fined.
Miller, 54, was one of three public officials charged in connection with Stenger’s efforts to award county business to political donors.
Miller, who pleaded guilty in May to aiding and abetting the deprivation of honest services via wire fraud, faced 15 to 21 months in prison under the recommended federal sentencing guidelines. His attorney, Larry Hale, sought probation for his client, a lawyer who has already surrendered his law license.
The government’s case against Miller primarily revolved around his efforts to pressure the former head of the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, Sheila Sweeney, into awarding a state lobbying contract to John Bardgett & Associates worth up to $450,000. But prosecutors also described Miller as Stenger’s “right-hand man” and said he actively participated in Stenger’s corruption.
Before joining the Stenger administration in December 2017, Miller was an administrative law judge from January to June 2017 and acting policy director for then-Gov. Jay Nixon from May 2015 to January 2017. His family owns the Missourian Publishing Co. in Washington, Missouri.
About a dozen friends and family attended Miller’s sentencing Friday in U.S. District Judge Rodney W. Sippel’s courtroom. Miller apologized to his wife and family, county residents and the Partnership, where he also served as a board member as part of the Stenger administration’s efforts to control the agency.
“I let a lot of people down,” Miller told the judge. “I lacked the courage and the discipline to tell Steve Stenger ‘no.’”
But Miller argued prosecutors were “wrong in the assessment of my character.” Referring to a recorded conversation in the government’s sentencing memo in which Miller referred to MOKAN, a minority contracting advocacy group, as a “racket,” Miller said his “harsh” words were directed at people and not a race. He said racial equity was an important issue to him and pointed to his work to hire Jack Thomas as the county’s first chief diversity officer. He also said he pushed to establish the county’s Strength through Equity Initiative in January.
“I fought with Steve (Stenger) to stay with it after he said he didn’t care about it anymore after the (2018) election,” Miller said.
As for prosecutors’ suggestion that he participated in Stenger’s schemes with the promise of becoming chief of staff of a combined metro government had the failed Better Together initiative passed in 2020, Miller said it wasn’t a motivation and he “never seriously considered taking that job.”
Miller’s attorney, Hale, spent much of his time arguing that Miller came late to the Stenger administration, which took office in January 2015, and didn’t participate in most of the crimes the government used in its indictment of the former county executive. Miller was following orders in a “toxic environment” where he would have been fired “with a quickness” if he didn’t carry out Stenger’s orders. And he said Sweeney, who also carried out Stenger’s orders and pleaded guilty, received probation in her sentencing last month.
Prosecutors in their sentencing memo appeared to “make light” of an undisclosed medical condition that Hale said justified a lighter sentence. “The fact that it is a frequent occurrence does not mean it is not important,” Hale said.
And he said the St. Louis County Council, in a letter about the impact of Stenger’s crimes, never mentioned Miller because “they knew him to be the good man” he is.
Hale often pointed to top Stenger aide Jeff Wagener, who has not been charged and is frequently part of the recorded conversations used by prosecutors in the Stenger corruption cases. In 2014, the same lobbying contract was up and Stenger asked Wagener to tell Denny Coleman, then head of the Partnership, to make sure Bardgett was hired. And Wagener was involved in Sweeney’s efforts to award businessman and Stenger donor John Rallo a sham marketing contract through the St. Louis County Port Authority.
“You want to talk about a right-hand man?” Hale said. But Wagener has not been charged “and won’t be.”
“Where’s the outrage for all the things Jeff Wagener did?” Hale said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith, who has led the Stenger corruption cases, said Miller’s conduct was “significantly different” than Sweeney’s. Prosecutors have said she was bullied by Stenger and eventually saw “the light” and tried to distance herself from Stenger.
“We’re talking apples and oranges,” Goldsmith told the judge.
As for Wagener, Goldsmith noted he was demoted from acting chief of staff and replaced with Miller because he hadn’t been doing “the bidding” of Stenger effectively enough.
Goldsmith pointed to a public statement Miller sent to media following a council action in December 2018 to cut Stenger’s budget accusing them of violating the law and calling the council vote “a betrayal of the public trust.”
But the very next day, Goldsmith said, Miller “took the final steps in that pay-to-play scheme” to award the Bardgett contract.
And when Stenger was plotting a bribe to sway a County Council member’s vote in the redevelopment of Jamestown Mall, Miller offered to help and “get right smack dab in the middle of that bribery scheme,” Goldsmith said. Later, Miller was recorded saying he “didn’t care” that it was wrong. The Post-Dispatch has identified Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray as the official, and the scheme involved having the developer hire her father, Elbert Walton Jr. It’s unclear whether Walton Gray and her father participated or knew about it.
When the FBI approached Miller in March seeking his cooperation, he lied to them “in order to conceal” his participation in Stenger’s corruption, Goldsmith said.
“This defendant was all in in this scheme,” Goldsmith said.
Judge Sippel said good people often do bad things, but he said Miller’s conduct was “not an aberrant moment” and agreed that Sweeney’s situation was different.
As the judge issued the sentence, Hale squeezed Miller’s arm. Miller dabbed his face with a tissue. Both declined to comment as they left the courthouse.
Stenger, a Democrat, was sentenced Aug. 10 to 46 months in prison and fined $250,000 after pleading guilty to three counts of honest services fraud and paying $130,000 in restitution.
Businessman John Rallo has also pleaded guilty in the case and is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 15.