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Feds say Stenger’s crass, mercenary behavior should earn him no break in prison time

Feds say Stenger’s crass, mercenary behavior should earn him no break in prison time

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ST. LOUIS — Federal prosecutors on Friday said that former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger should receive no break in a possible three- to four-year prison sentence, painting him as a vindictive bully who used his political power to line his pockets, reward donors and punish his perceived enemies.

Among Stenger’s enemies were the St. Louis County Council, which he hoped would be wiped out in a city-county merger he supported; his own staffers when they didn’t do his bidding or check with him before taking action; and the son of a former state representative who opposed Stenger, a 12-page sentencing memo filed Friday says. He was even opposed to a tax for the St. Louis Zoo, simply because “it does nothing for me,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith quoted Stenger as saying.

Stenger also discussed a plan to talk to the head of the hospital where Dr. Sam Page, a council member, worked and “get him fired.”

Scott Rosenblum, Stenger’s lawyer, said in a text that he would be filing his own memo and would reserve his “comments and response” for that.

The government’s sentencing memo says Stenger appointed people to positions in the county that he knew “would take their direction from him” or could manipulate and control. He gave jobs to his “political cronies and their family members,” Goldsmith wrote, including a $130,000 job to the husband of financier Rex Sinquefield’s chief of staff. Stenger hoped the job would tie him more closely to the Better Together initiative to merge St. Louis city and county and called it an “insurance policy” in a conversation with executive staff that was captured by federal agents.

That employee, not identified in the memo, was Lance LeComb. The government’s memo said LeComb did not know Stenger’s reason for hiring him, and although LeComb tried to work on various county projects, he was assigned “very little substantive work” by Stenger and his chief of staff. LeComb “worked primarily on Better Together matters while being paid with St. Louis County funds,” a footnote says.

LeComb clarified in a phone interview with the Post-Dispatch that he was working on Better Together matters for the county at Stenger’s direction and not for the merger group. He said he left a good job for a county position where he thought he would be doing important work. “That never happened and I never knew why. And the government’s sentencing memo now answers that question for me,” he said.

Sinquefield contributed about $700,000 through various organizations and political action committees to Stenger’s political efforts. Better Together was funded primarily by Sinquefield, Goldsmith wrote. Stenger’s ambition to be the mayor of the merged metropolitan area drove his support of the organization, to the point of neglecting his county duties, Goldsmith wrote.

Sinquefield couldn’t be reached for comment.

A spokesman for Better Together issued a statement late Friday calling the organization “unwitting victims of Steve Stenger’s criminal acts and pay-to-play scheme. We at Better Together continue to believe in the democratic process, good government and civic involvement to improve the well-being of our region.”

Stenger abused county residents’ trust “in a substantial and harmful way,” Goldsmith wrote. Stenger “placed his own personal interests and political ambitions above all else, and engaged in a classic illegal pay to play scheme in order to fill his own political coffers to fuel his political campaigns. Defendant’s criminal acts were for his own personal gain, aimed at continuing his reign of power and authority in St. Louis County.” He did so even before he was elected and throughout the entirety of his tenure, the memo says.

The memo also provides a personal financial motivation for Stenger’s crimes: he loaned his campaign about $400,000 early in his career, then repaid that loan through “his political fundraising and criminal scheme.” He spent little time in the office during 2018, instead focusing on fundraising and the next election. “How ’bout that (expletive)? I don’t show up to the Council meetings. I don’t do (double expletive). I’ve been sitting at my house for the past two months (expletive) raising money and then won by 20%! The world’s a (expletive) up place,” the memo quotes Stenger saying to staff.

Goldsmith said in the memo that Stenger shouldn’t get a lesser sentence for resigning or turning in his law license and CPA license, as that would have happened anyway after his conviction.

A letter to U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry from the five current members of the County Council and Page, who succeeded Stenger as county executive, was just as blistering. It says Stenger had a “devastating impact” on the county, and that Stenger acted like “an untouchable king.”

He ignored anything but what he could use to get more money from donors. Among the important issues they said were ignored concerned the interests of African Americans, the challenges the county faced after the protests that followed the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the county jail and the animal shelter.

The letter says Stenger rarely appeared in his office. When he did, he arrived late in shorts, a T-shirt and a baseball cap. He shut his office door and spent much of the day playing video games before leaving early.

He ignored or laughed at sexual harassment of employees by donors and reporters. Page’s chief of staff, Winston Calvert, said Friday that no Post-Dispatch reporters were involved in those incidents.

Stenger’s criminal scheme required county employees to act unethically or put them in positions where they might have unknowingly done something inappropriate, the letter says. Others were “held hostage by a criminal, forced to choose between leaving for a less toxic work environment and” a hope they wouldn’t get “caught up in the defendant’s corrupt behavior.”

Staffers were “left feeling betrayed, used, demoralized, and disillusioned,” and the county is now struggling to hire and retain employees and appoint people to boards and commissions. Ethical developers and contractors are shying away, the letter says.

“In the final analysis, the defendant never behaved as if he appreciated or even understood the significance of his office. He never grasped the true meaning of public service,” it says.

In its own letter, the St. Louis County Port Authority said that Stenger’s actions have cost millions of dollars. A fraudulent contract with a Stenger donor, John Rallo, totaled $130,000. Other contracts awarded at the direction of Stenger or former authority head Sheila Sweeney that “produced little or no benefit” cost at least $399,000, the letter says. The authority has canceled $5 million of a total of $7 million of “unnecessary and ill-conceived grants.” The rest of the grants are being honored for legal reasons, the letter says. Consulting, auditing and legal work has added at least $250,000.

Another letter says the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority is exercising its right to repurchase parcels of land sold at a loss of millions of dollars to a Stenger donor, John Rallo. They, like the port authority, also wrote about the loss of their reputation due to Stenger’s corruption and the missed opportunities to do real work.

Stenger is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 9.

Perry on Thursday approved a Stenger request to pay $130,000 in restitution before sentencing.

The County Council’s presiding officer, Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, has said that isn’t enough, and speculated that it was a “clever legal maneuver” by Stenger’s lawyers. He said it “remains to be seen” whether the millions of dollars that Stenger’s crimes cost county taxpayers can be recovered.

In Stenger’s plea, he admitted that the loss amount due to his crimes was between $250,000 and $550,000.

Stenger resigned in May before pleading guilty in U.S. District Court in St. Louis to three counts of honest services mail fraud and admitting a series of pay-to-play schemes in which he asked for and received contributions from those seeking to do business with St. Louis County and associated entities, and then took action on donors’ behalf.

Rallo pleaded guilty to federal charges earlier this month. Sweeney and Stenger’s former chief of staff, Bill Miller, have each pleaded guilty to one federal crime and await sentencing.

Jeremy Kohler of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger pleaded guilty to pay-for-play charges: Some background reading

Here's a collection of Post-Dispatch stories looking at some of the controversies surrounding the St. Louis County Executive.

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