Associate of former St. Louis County executive pleads guilty

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — The former chief executive of the St. Louis region's economic development agency admitted to a federal felony Friday for helping to cover up a pay-for-play scheme orchestrated by the man who appointed her, former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.

Sheila Sweeney's guilty plea to the crime of misprision of a felony came a week after Stenger admitted to three federal corruption charges. They both face sentencing in August. Federal sentencing guidelines suggest Stenger, 47, could get three to four years in prison, while Sweeney, 61, could get up to one year behind bars.

Meanwhile, a third person accused in the scheme, businessman John Rallo, pleaded not guilty in a separate hearing Friday, following his indictment on three bribery counts. Federal prosecutors say Stenger ensured that county contracts went to companies operated by Rallo, a contributor to his campaign.

Messages seeking comment from Rallo's attorney were not immediately returned.

The downfall of Stenger and Sweeney was swift. The indictment against Stenger was announced on April 29 and he resigned that same day.

Stenger's activities had been under investigation for well over a year by the FBI, IRS and U.S. Postal Service. The county council was conducting its own ethics investigation, and reports by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch raised concerns.

It wasn't immediately clear if anyone else associated with Stenger would face criminal charges. The county executive is the top elected official in St. Louis County, Missouri's largest county with about 1 million residents.

In his plea, Stenger admitting taking actions to ensure that county contracts went to two Rallo-owned companies — Cardinal Insurance and Cardinal Creative Consulting; and ensuring that Rallo's Wellston Holdings LLC obtained options to buy two properties in the town of Wellston that were held by the county's Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority.

Stenger also was accused of ensuring that an unnamed company obtained a state lobbying contract from the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, and taking actions to conceal the illegal conduct.

Sweeney was forced out by the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership's board of directors in January. Her removal followed St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigations that, among other things, raised questions about procurement practices and the awarding of contracts to Stenger's campaign donors.

The indictment accuses Rallo, 53, of scheming with Stenger starting in October 2014, a month before Stenger was first elected county executive after serving on the county council for six years. Prosecutors allege that the crimes continued through 2017.

In one December 2017 conversation between Rallo and Sweeney cited in the indictment, Sweeney directed Rallo to remove his name as registered agent for Cardinal Consulting from the Missouri Secretary of State records to help conceal the scheme.

Rallo promised to take care of it, the indictment said.

"Got to cover him," Sweeney said, referring to Stenger. "And me too!!"

"I know, I've got you covered," Rallo replied, according to the indictment.

Stenger won re-election in November despite the cloud of investigations hanging over him. Following his resignation, Democratic Councilman Sam Page was named interim executive. Page will serve out the remainder of the four-year term.

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