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Byers' Beat: John Rallo and the blame game

Businessman John Rallo was sentenced to 17 months for his role for a political pay-to-play scheme, and it's all the media's fault
Credit: AP
John Rallo

ST. LOUIS — John Rallo has had a lot of bad press.

And his family name has been tarnished.

Scratch that.

It’s been stained.

That’s what happens when you are the lynchpin in a federal pay-to-play scheme that takes down a powerful politician like former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.

But it wasn’t always that way for Rallo.

There has been plenty of positive publicity through the years about the Rallo family empire and its contributions to the St. Louis region.

Their construction company is well-known. 

Positive contributions to society equals positive press.

See how that works?

Rallo made his money most recently selling insurance.

But his business ventures have varied. 

He once owned a Clayton cigar bar known as Johnny Roller's. He told the Post-Dispatch in 1996 the moniker was his nickname, which he earned after a long night at a craps table in Las Vegas.

Rallo was also a member of Missourians for Patient Care, medical marijuana initiative. His support of the industry made him kindred spirits with former talk show host, Montel Williams, who founded a medical marijuana product company, Lenitiv Scientific. 

Rallo and Williams have been photographed together during legislative hearings about medical marijuana in the Missouri Legislature.

Williams also introduced Rallo to a Utah-based business owner, who eventually made Rallo the CEO of his company, Food For Health International, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. 

But he wanted more. 

And he abused St. Louis County taxpayers to get it.

His indictment says he contributed to Stenger’s campaign so his insurance company could land the county’s insurance needs.

And, in his own words, he was “tired of paying politicians and getting nothing in return,” according to U.S. Magistrate Richard Webber.

He read Rallo’s words Thursday before sentencing the 54-year-old to 17 months in prison.

About 25 or so of Rallo’s family and friends attended the hearing, some of them hanging their heads and wiping away tears as they realized their hero, their loved one, their patriarch, was going to the penitentiary.

After nearly 20 years as a reporter, I’ve seen family members weep countless times throughout my career as prison sentences are handed down for far more heinous crimes and for far much more time.

And I’ve listened as families and friends describe what the accused means to them and others in the hopes that perhaps some of their words might garner some sympathy from the judge and lead to mercy during sentencing.

But rarely have I heard “bad press” used as frequently as a mitigating factor as I did during Rallo’s hearing.

I think the judge picked up on it, too.

He summarized the 18 letters of support submitted to the court on Rallo’s behalf.

All asked Webber to sentence Rallo – who was described in one of the letters as the kind of father who woke up at 5 a.m. to drive his daughter, who has autism, to school so she wouldn’t get made fun of on the school bus – to probation.

Even home confinement, if he saw fit.

But Webber said a “light sentence would be a failure of judicial responsibility.”

Likewise, light press coverage would be a failure of our duty as journalists to keep the public informed about the inner workings of government and how it is handling crimes like this.

Bad press it seems is too light of a sentence in Webber’s mind – even though it has caused Rallo to move himself, his wife and at least two of their children, ages 11 and 10, to a rental property in Utah and his parents to face scorn for their son’s actions in their own church.

But Rallo has ties to Utah.

The indictment says Rallo responded in 2017 to Stenger's request to become on of his “Trustee” program members, who give Stenger $2,500 each quarter in a text that read, "Sorry, bad reception I’m skiing in Utah …  Absolutely count me in as a trustee, glad to support!”

The Missouri Division of Securities listed Rallo's address in 2019 as a home the Salt Lake County assessor estimates has a market value of almost $1.2 million.

That part wasn't mentioned in court Thursday.

But the judge rightfully reminded everyone that nobody is to blame for Rallo’s bad press but Rallo.

And, as Rallo learned Thursday, bad press isn’t a prison sentence.

Some of Rallo’s family and friends glared at me and the other reporters who stood outside the courtroom, waiting to give him an opportunity to speak for himself if he wanted to.

I don’t blame them.

What we have written, spoken and broadcasted about Rallo doesn’t compute with the man they know and love – the man, and the family, that’s been accustomed to positive press.

I felt for them, especially when Rallo’s attorney, John Rogers, said his young children begged their mother to make sure they brought their daddy home after court Thursday and that he has undergone treatment for thyroid cancer, now in remission.

No doubt, they’ve been through hell.

But it's a hell of his making. 

Not ours.

Watch for Christine Byers' column every Friday. She will go beyond the headlines of the week's top stories.

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