Steve Stenger, right, and his lawyer Scott Rosenblum leave the Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse in downtown St. Louis following Stenger’s sentencing Friday, Aug. 9. Stenger was sentenced to 46 months in prison and will report Sept. 21. Photo by Erin Achenbach.
By Gloria Lloyd
Steve Stenger served four years as county executive, and starting Sept. 21, he will start serving nearly four years in federal prison at the federal prison camp in Yankton, South Dakota. And since he qualifies for the lowest-security federal prison camp, his prison comes without bars or even fences.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons filed Stenger’s prison assignment Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith said in an email. Stenger has to report to Federal Prison Camp Yankton by 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21.
The prison in South Dakota has no cells or fences and is a former university campus that is ranked among the top 10 “cushiest” federal prisons by Forbes. The old dorm buildings are used for inmate housing.
U.S. District Judge Catherine D. Perry sentenced Stenger Aug. 9 to a 46-month prison term, the high end of his plea deal after he pleaded guilty to three federal corruption charges for a pay-to-play scheme exchanging county contracts for campaign donations. She also sentenced him to a $250,000 fine alongside the $130,000 in restitution he already paid, far above the $15,000 to $50,000 recommended in his plea deal.
Stenger, 47, pleaded guilty May 3 to three felony corruption charges: bribery, theft of honest services and mail fraud.
Stenger faced a maximum of 60 years in prison and a $750,000 fine. Perry could have potentially gone up to the maximum in her sentencing, since she was not bound by the plea deal.
So far, three other people have been convicted in the case, including Stenger’s former Chief of Staff Bill Miller; the head of the city-county economic agency, Sheila Sweeney; and John Rallo, the businessman at the center of the case who sought out county contracts by handing Stenger quarterly donations.
Miller was sentenced to 15 months in prison Friday, but U.S. District Judge Rodney Sippel left his prison assignment up to fate.
But he left open the possibility that Miller could also be sentenced to Yankton, noting that Miller’s prison assignment “might be close, or it might be South Dakota.”
Because Stenger has no prior criminal history and is convicted of a nonviolent, white-collar crime, he qualifies for a federal prison camp or FPC, the lowest security in the federal prison system. Even a judge allowing a defendant to voluntarily surrender gives them a better chance at a lower-security prison. Miller will also qualify for a lower-security prison camp.
Perry was tough on Stenger in the time of the prison term, but she allowed him leeway in other aspects of his sentence.
The judge agreed to allow Stenger to voluntarily surrender to prison no later than Sept. 21 since his wife’s due date for a baby girl, their third child, is Sept. 13.
Perry said she was “happy” to grant Stenger’s attorney Scott Rosenblum’s request that she recommend Stenger serve his time at either FPC Pensacola in Florida or FPC Yankton, both ranked among the “cushiest” prisons.
But Perry did not agree to recommend that he be entered into a residential drug abuse treatment program, or RDAP, for alcohol abuse. It could take a year off his sentence if he eventually gains entry to the program.
Stenger serves in South Dakota
Perry could have left Stenger’s prison assignment up to fate and the Bureau of Prisons. But the BOP got the final say, which is based on judge’s recommendations, space, security level and proximity to the defendant’s home and family.
“Mr. Stenger, you understand that if they don’t follow those recommendations, there’s nothing I can do about it?” Perry asked Stenger at the sentencing.
“Yes, Your Honor,” Stenger said.
Rosenblum did not respond to a request for comment about the prison assignment by The Call’s press time.
Stenger started from a more favorable position with his prison request than a fellow disgraced county executive from across the state, former Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders, who also pleaded guilty to fraud.
In that case, U.S. District Judge Roseann Ketchmark was so upset with Sanders not taking responsibility for part of the indictment that she threatened to send him straight from sentencing to prison, and also left his prison up to the BOP. He requested Yankton but instead was assigned to the nearest facility, higher-security USP Leavenworth in Kansas.
If the BOP had chosen to send Stenger to the closest facility despite security levels, he would have been serving his time at Greenville FCI in Greenville, Illinois, a medium-security facility 45 minutes away from downtown St. Louis with an adjacent minimum-security camp.
Although that would allow Stenger to be closer to his family for visits, he prefers to serve his time at a standalone prison camp.
And he wants to be at one far away. Rosenblum told the judge, “Mr. Stenger had a very high-profile case, and we can argue it would be best to have him incarcerated outside of the area.”
He also noted that Stenger prefers to be far from St. Louis because of the many defendants he represented as a criminal defense attorney and federal public defender who are now in prison themselves.
But distance may not take Stenger away from his clients. As a public defender, he represented Steven Mueller in the federal murder-for-hire case involving a Mehlville Fire Protection District firefighter, James Kornhardt. Mueller is now serving life in prison at a high-security prison in Florida.
Lower-security camps have dormitory housing, lower staff-to-inmate ratios, limited or no perimeter fencing and are more work- and program-oriented.
Yankton is 582 miles from Stenger’s front door in Clayton and an eight-hour drive.
Rosenblum has frequently requested Yankton for his clients, including Tom Lakin, the attorney sentenced in 2008 to six years for “hosting drug-fueled sex parties with minors,” according to Post-Dispatch reporting.
“It is a nice facility actually,” the Madison County Record quoted Rosenblum saying of Yankton, which is 60 miles northwest of Sioux City, Iowa.
Speaking in another case where he also requested that his client serve in Yankton, Rosenblum told a newspaper, “It’s peaceful…. It’s rated as one of the best camps.”
Yankton is a former college that uses the former student dorms for inmate housing. It has no outside walls or bars on cells, with inmates free to roam the grounds. Guards are “not too tough” on inmates, who can take classes like accounting and business management, Forbes said.
Pensacola, in the Florida Panhandle, is rated as one of the best camps because of its weather that allows inmates to go outside all year and its proximity to a naval base where inmates can get better jobs than they would at most prisons. The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels practice overhead.
Pensacola had 593 inmates as of Aug. 30. Yankton had 466 inmates.
But although the bars Stenger will be behind might be more metaphorical than metal, he will still be in prison and his freedom will be restricted.
And despite the typical labeling of prison camps as “Club Fed,” any type of federal prison is no cakewalk, said one of Stenger’s chief foes in county government, council Presiding Officer Ernie Trakas.
Like Stenger, Trakas is an attorney who has represented clients who were sent to federal prison.
“He won’t be in a cell, he’ll be in a room, but the room will be locked,” Trakas said. “Access to the outside will be limited. He’ll be expected to do a job. No one is going to enjoy that experience.”