Our Call: From county executive to felon: The Steve Stenger decade

Editorial

And to think, it all started with trash districts. And a swimming pool.

More than a decade ago when a young, ambitious attorney named Steve Stenger challenged 6th District County Councilman John Campisi, R-South County, his main contention was that Campisi was a crook, misusing taxpayer dollars by filling his swimming pool from a fire hydrant. Campisi had pleaded guilty to that.

When Campisi voted to establish county trash districts in unincorporated areas — and then, when a backlash erupted in South County, told his constituents that he hadn’t read the bill — Stenger pounced. He sent out negative campaign mailers recounting the alleged corruption in detail.

Stenger won. In fact, he never lost a race. And through his seat on the County Council representing more than 100,000 South County residents, he quietly built a power base to take on longtime incumbent County Executive Charlie Dooley, a fellow Democrat. You know the rest.

Or you thought you did, until last week when Stenger pleaded guilty to three federal corruption charges, including “honest services” fraud, a catch-all corruption charge for depriving citizens of your honest services. He went from county executive to convicted felon in five days.

The subheadline on The Call’s October 2014 article announcing that Stenger would challenge Dooley was, “Affton attorney wants to restore confidence in county government.”

It’s painful to read those words now. Stenger left Affton behind long ago. He’ll soon no longer be an attorney after voluntarily giving up his law license as part of his plea deal.

And he admitted he sold St. Louis County government out to the highest bidder, or in fact the lowest bidder when it came to businessman John Rallo. Stenger betrayed the taxpayers who repeatedly voted him into office for a measly $10,000 a year from Rallo, out of more than $4 million in campaign contributions.

For the last 10 years, South County has been represented in Clayton by Steve Stenger. The Affton native was first elected to office here, and the scheme that ultimately brought him down was hatched here, at Sam’s Steakhouse in Affton. To what will surely be the delight of those residents of Oakville who have detested him for years for his role in approving the National Church Residences Telegraph Road apartment complex, it seems he was ultimately brought down by an Oakville resident, as one of his seemingly most loyal foot soldiers, former 6th District Councilman Jeff Wagener, by all appearances seems to have worn a wire to take down his boss.

Not only is Stenger’s political career that he based his life around finished, but he is now a felon who can’t vote, run for office or serve on a jury.

The indictment was a crushing end to a political career that, just a few months ago, had Stenger on top of the world: He had just won re-election to a second term as county executive in St. Louis County and was the designated “Metro Mayor” of a St. Louis megacity if the city-county merger goes through.

He had a growing family with young children.

And he had just recently remodeled his Clayton house to add, among other things, a swimming pool. Oh, the irony.