ST. LOUIS — In less than one week, Steve Stenger went from the highest ranking elected official in St. Louis County to a convicted felon.
The former county executive, 47, entered a guilty plea on Friday morning to three federal charges, including theft of honest services, mail fraud and bribery.
It's all in connection to five pay-to-play schemes that spanned from 2014 to 2019, according to federal prosecutors.
Stenger's plea agreement states, in part, that he "...used his official position as St. Louis County Executive to enrich himself through soliciting and accepting campaign contributions from individuals and their companies in exchange for favorable official action, which enriched those individuals and their companies by secretly obtaining favorable action for themselves and their companies, through corrupt means."
It also states Stenger did so "...with the intent to defraud" and that he "...used, caused to be used, or aided and abetted the use of the mail in furtherance of, or in an attempt to carry out, some essential step in the scheme."
During a half-hour hearing before a crowded courtroom gallery, U.S. Senior District Judge Catherine Perry asked Stenger if he believed he was guilty of these crimes.
Stenger replied, "I do, your honor."
Under the deal, federal prosecutors have agreed to stop further prosecution of Stenger as it relates to matters involving him they're already aware of.
The deal also means that had the case gone to trial, prosecutors would've presented evidence that proved Stenger's guilt.
It's evidence that was revealed to include recorded conversations from inside Stenger's home and office at the county government building in downtown Clayton, telephone calls, text messages, e-mails and first-hand accounts of "numerous" county government employees.
Each crime carries a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison, but federal sentencing guidelines suggest a likely three to four years behind bars.
John Lynch, a criminal defense attorney in the St. Louis area, told 5 On Your Side that reaching a quick plea agreement for non-violent offenses likely helps Stenger's case.
But Lynch believes he'll ultimately still serve time.
"I think in the federal criminal justice system, persons in positions of power, white collar criminal offenders, public officials accused of committing crimes or pleading guilty to those crimes are looked at with a harsher lens than the average street criminal," Lynch said.
Outside court, Stenger didn't answer questions from reporters, but his attorney Scott Rosenblum made a brief statement:
"Obviously today was a very difficult day for Steve and his family. On the other side, Steve has many, many things for which he is very proud, especially his role as a private lawyer and the countless individuals he's helped. Today's obviously not one of those days. But he has completely accepted responsibility for his mistakes in judgment, his lapses in judgment and his conduct while in office as county executive," he said.
The indictment against Stenger was announced Monday. He resigned from office a short time later and surrendered his law license.
Stenger was accused of ensuring that high-profile donor John Rallo and his companies — Cardinal Insurance and Cardinal Creative Consulting — obtained contracts with the county and other favors like fundraising events.
He also was accused of ensuring that an unnamed company obtained a state lobbying contract from the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. In January, the partnership's board of directors forced out Sheila Sweeney, a Stenger appointee.
The indictment stemmed from a year-long undercover investigation, involving the U.S. Attorney's Office, FBI, Postal Inspection Service, IRS and several cooperating witnesses.
Investigators reviewed thousands of emails and text messages and listened to recorded meetings and phone calls over their year of undercover work, which started in 2018.
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