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Updated at 4:41 p.m.

ST. LOUIS — Bill Miller, chief of staff to former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, pleaded guilty to a federal felony Friday and admitted helping Stenger defraud the citizens of St. Louis County in a pay-to-play scheme.

Miller, 54, pleaded guilty to a single felony count of theft of honest services through bribery and wire fraud.

He admitted spending weeks putting pressure on Sheila Sweeney, who at the time was head of the region’s economic development office, to award a state lobbying contract to a major Stenger donor.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith, who is prosecuting the case, declined to comment after Miller’s plea, saying the investigation is “ongoing.”

Miller’s lawyer, Larry Hale, also declined to comment.

According to Miller’s plea agreement, the state lobbying contract with the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership was expiring in November 2018, and Stenger made it clear to Miller and others that he wanted the existing lobbying firm to remain. The company and its owner donated a total of $59,000 to Stenger, the plea says.

Neither is identified in court documents, but the Post-Dispatch has identified the company as John Bardgett & Associates. In December, the firm won the contract, which would have paid $149,000 in 2019, and included two one-year renewal options worth about $150,000 each.

The contract was cancelled in the wake of the scandal, Goldsmith said in court.

John Bardgett has said that his firm has worked for St. Louis County and its economic development agencies across five county executive administrations and has never placed any conditions on campaign donations. He did not respond Friday to a request for comment about his contract’s cancellation.

Miller’s plea does quote Stenger as saying that Bardgett has been “one of the biggest supporters of every county executive, including the person I was running against last time.”

At the December meeting where the Bardgett contract was approved, Partnership President Rodney Crim said the firm had been “very instrumental in working with us on all economic development issues at the state.” The board approved the recommendation unanimously. Crim was named interim CEO of the Partnership in early January after Sweeney resigned.

In a statement Friday about the contract’s cancellation, Partnership board chair Karlos Ramirez said: “As we continue to review all areas of our operations, this gives us the opportunity to reevaluate our state legislative liaison services.”

Miller is the third person to plead guilty and fourth to be charged in the ongoing federal investigation of county government.

Stenger, 47, pleaded guilty on May 3 to charges related to a pay-to-play scheme involving contracts with the county and associated entities. He resigned as county executive on April 29 after a grand jury indictment was made public. Sweeney, 61, pleaded guilty on May 10 to charges related to the pay-to-play scheme. Both will be sentenced in August.

John Rallo, 53, a Stenger donor involved in other contracts that are part of the government criminal investigation, has pleaded not guilty.

Secret recordings

Federal investigators were aided by secret recordings of meetings and phone calls, as well as records of text messages and emails, and prosecutors have been quoting from those conversations in court documents.

In court, Goldsmith said that investigators had “tens and tens of hours” of those recordings, as well as “numerous” first-hand accounts of events from witnesses in and out of government.

According to that evidence, Stenger instructed Miller and other staffers to contact Sweeney to “ensure” that Bardgett won the contract.

Miller is quoted in the plea as telling executive staff members on Oct. 30, 2018, that the company owner called and “wants some consideration,” and Stenger said that it has “got to happen.”

“So, in other words, some message has to be delivered to Sheila,” he continued.

On Nov. 16, Miller said that a failure to award Bardgett the contract would be “disastrous for Sheila.” Stenger’s policy chief, Jeff Wagener, responded that Sweeney was planning to “play it straight,” according to the charging documents against Miller. A second company had bid for the contract. A Partnership spokeswoman said it could not reveal the other company because of the ongoing federal investigation.

Miller continued to talk with Sweeney about the contract by phone. In a Nov. 19 conversation between Stenger, Wagener and another staffer, Stenger said that if Sweeney was planning to award the contract to another company, he’d fire her before she could do so. He also stressed that he, the staffers and Sweeney were all “political” people, charging documents say.

“It’s the art of staying in power,” Miller responded.

Miller, Wagener and another staffer met with Sweeney at a Starbucks coffee shop in Clayton on Nov. 20. Afterwards, Miller said he thought Sweeney “got the message,” charging documents say.

Sweeney recommended that the board award the contract to Bardgett, “in large part” based on the conversations with Stenger staffers, Miller’s plea says. Wagener and Miller were on the board, which went along with Sweeney’s recommendation.

Prison possible

{div class=”subscriber-only”}Miller was hired by Stenger in December 2017. He resigned on April 12, about three weeks after federal prosecutors served a subpoena to St. Louis County commanding a wide range of records. Miller said he was leaving “to pursue other employment opportunities.”{/div}Miller could face 15 to 21 months in prison under the recommended sentencing guidelines for the crime, and will have to repay an as-yet unspecified amount of money. He will be sentenced on Sept. 6.

{div class=”subscriber-only”}Miller, an attorney, was previously an administrative law judge from January to June 2017, acting policy director for then-Gov. Jay Nixon from May 2015 to January 2017. His family owns the Missourian Publishing Company in Washington, Mo. He is listed as vice president of the company in a document filed with the Missouri secretary of state.

He will likely face discipline of his law license if he doesn’t surrender it, as Stenger did.

Stenger was disbarred Tuesday by the Missouri Supreme Court.

Rallo, the Stenger donor, was indicted May 9 on three felony charges of honest services fraud. The indictment claims he donated tens of thousands of dollars to Stenger expecting to receive county contracts in return. The indictment says Stenger unsuccessfully tried to direct a county insurance contract to Rallo’s company. He did help Rallo win a “sham” $130,000 marketing contract and helped Rallo and partners win bidding for two county-owned industrial parks.

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