When U.S. District Judge Catherine D. Perry sentenced Steve Stenger to 46 months in federal prison, at the highest end of the sentencing guidelines, she dismissed claims made by his attorney Scott Rosenblum, that Stenger’s remorse should be a mitigating factor.
“Look at how long this went on,” Perry said – “months, years. This was your whole way of life.”
“This” was Stenger’s practice of bullying staff to award contracts to his campaign donors and threatening them with losing their jobs if they did not go along. For “this,” Stenger had pled guilty to three counts of theft of honest services, bribery and mail fraud.
It was ironic that, while waiting in the courtroom for the judge to appear for the sentencing hearing, Stenger moved a microphone away from his face. Microphones were precisely what brought down the former county executive – who grew up as a singer in rock bands and has been known to take the mic to sing at black churches on the campaign trail.
His attorney, Rosenblum, noted that the federal government had so many cooperating witnesses that some of Stenger’s offending statements were caught on more than one wire. His text messages also were incriminating.
What Stenger said (unwittingly) into those many microphones was much discussed during the sentencing hearing. Rosenblum said that Stenger’s admittedly “rude, boorish and vulgar” statements should be understood in the context of his saying them in private to his “closest friends.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith shredded that claim. “These were not his ‘closest friends,’” Goldsmith said. “They were his top executive staff members, and they were intimidated and threatened to carry out his orders to advance his scheme.”
None of Stenger’s many outrageous quotes released in the indictment, plea agreement or sentencing memo were quoted in court. But Goldsmith did summarize one – when Stenger threatened to block a minority contractor from a major public contract because that contractor’s mother had recorded a campaign ad against Stenger. Clearly, this referred to Anthony Thompson of Kwame Building Group and his mother, former state Rep. Betty Thompson.
“He is threatening someone with loss of honest public services because his mother exercised her 1st Amendment rights to politicize against him,” Goldsmith said, with audible scorn.
Perry also ordered Stenger to pay $130,000 in restitution to the St. Louis County Port Authority to repay a fraudulent consulting contract that Stenger ordered to be awarded to a campaign contributor. Stenger already has paid this restitution to the clerk of courts.
Perry also went above the sentencing guidelines to hit Stenger with the maximum possible fine of $250,000.”
“Usually this court does not order fines because the defendant does not have the ability to pay, but, Mr. Stenger, you do have the ability to pay the fine,” the judge said, with a sting. That payment is due “immediately in full or within 60 days.”
As for incarceration, Goldsmith did not contest Rosenblum’s request that Stenger be allowed to turn himself in not before September 21, because he has a child due on September 13 and has not violated any terms of his bond to date. The judge granted that request. She also agreed to Rosenblum’s request that she ask the Bureau of Prisons to assign Stenger to a federal prison far from the constituents he defrauded. His requests (radically different in climate) were prisons in Pensacola, Florida and Yankton, South Dakota.
Stenger has 14 days to appeal this sentence.
Goldsmith reminded the court and Stenger of the campaign promises he made when he first ran for county executive against incumbent Charlie Dooley, winning a glowing endorsement from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which ran a year of stories and editorials accusing Dooley of corruption. Unlike Stenger, Dooley was never charged.
“He said he was going to ‘restore public confidence in government,’” Goldsmith quoted Stenger, “and have an administration ‘free of embarrassments and scandals.’”