Stenger’s Sad Demise

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JEWISH LIGHT EDITORIAL

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  — Lord Acton, 19th century British politician

The sudden guilty plea and resignation of Steve Stenger, after a federal indictment charged him with several examples of “pay to play” schemes, bribery and lying to the U.S. attorney, was the first right thing he had done in months.

There have long been credible reports that as St. Louis county executive, Stenger insisted upon a quid pro quo for any favor he would provide for someone seeking his support for a project or an issue. That practice is frequently cited as the downfall of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is serving a prison term for his criminal activities.

Blagojevich actually tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he won the presidency in 2008. It came to symbolize the most craven kind of pay-to-play corruption, on a large scale. Stenger’s case is much smaller, comparatively, but that doesn’t make it any less sad. 

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After serving on the County Council, Stenger challenged incumbent County Executive Charlie Dooley, promising to clean up corruption in county government. For Stenger to leave office and head to prison in disgrace for bringing shame upon his administration proves once again the famous dictum of Lord Acton. Stenger’s power may have been far from absolute, but his administration was absolutely corrupt to the core.

The fact that a man with the intelligence of Stenger would commit such blatant acts of political extortion in this day and age is truly astounding. The County Council deserves credit for filling the office of county executive promptly with Sam Page, chairman of the legislative body, who has an admirable record of responsible public service and of  cooperating with Republicans as well as with fellow Democrats.

Stenger’s downfall is even sadder when you consider details of the indictment and the heavy-handed way he demanded to be compensated for political favors. In one quotation, laced with profanities, he comes across more like an organized-crime boss than someone trusted with the welfare of the people of St. Louis County. He clearly was far more interested in his own welfare and pocketbook.

And now there appears to be what might be collateral damage. Better Together, whose original proposal would have put Stenger at the head of any newly merged city-county government, has pulled its petition altogether to rethink the whole process. Even though the Stenger provision had been jettisoned, his resignation and guilty plea have inevitably had lingering negative effects on the merger effort. Given the widespread opposition to the plan, the decision to take a step back may be the only good thing to come out of the Stenger affair.

Stenger’s disgrace should be considered in the aftermath of last year’s resignation of former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who fought mightily against allegations of numerous misdeeds before finally agreeing to step down. Consider, too, the cesspool in Washington, where the White House and Congress are engaged in a blood sport of charges and investigations that primarily have more to do with scoring points on each other than seeking justice or improving the lives of everyday Americans.

It is ironic that both the office of the county executive and the chambers of the County Council are located in the Lawrence K. Roos County Government Building in Clayton. The structure is named after a county leader who was known for his honesty and integrity. Roos was elected in 1962 after allegations that incumbent county officials engaged in the kind of shady practices that brought down  the Stenger administration. 

Last week, the Jewish Light published an obituary for Kenneth J. Rothman, the first Jewish person to serve as Missouri House speaker and later as lieutenant governor. Roos, the good-government Republican, and Rothman, a staunch Democrat who was liked and respected on both sides of the aisle, each possessed the very qualities so sorely needed at every level of government —   local, state and federal.

Let us hope that the positive examples shown by elected officials like Roos, Rothman and many others will return as the primary attributes of present and future candidates as they seek to serve the public and not line their own pockets at the expense of the people they are sworn to serve. 

Stenger will likely have years in prison to ponder that lesson, as well as his sad demise.