CLAYTON, Mo. (AP) — A civilian oversight panel reprimanded the St. Louis County police chief on Wednesday for a request he made to a federal judge seeking leniency for a political ally's nephew in a drug conspiracy case investigated in part by his department.
The county Board of Police Commissioners voted unanimously to censure Chief Jon Belmar. Belmar also led St. Louis County's response to the fatal Ferguson police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 before Missouri's governor installed the Highway Patrol as the lead law enforcement agency following protester complaints of excessive police force.
Wednesday's written reprimand is related to letters Belmar and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger wrote supporting Michael Saracino II, 27, who was sentenced in December to two years in federal prison. Belmar's letter angered police union leaders and some officers who worked on the marijuana distribution case as part of a federal task force.
The police chief declined comment through a spokesman after a brief public meeting in which board Chairman Roland Covington, a former FBI agent who led its St. Louis office, referenced the letter of censure but also noted that "the chief will continue to have the full support of this board." The board did not release a copy of its reprimand. The vote was 3-0, with one member absent.
Saracino's uncle John — a former Board of Police Commissioners member whose vacancy on the five-member board has not yet been filled — on Jan. 18 resigned as a $130,000-a-year Stenger aide over fallout from the letters, which were written several months after Michael Saracino II's July 2015 guilty plea. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch first reported on the intervention by the county officials on his behalf. The letters were under seal until the newspaper requested copies.
Belmar's letter to U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry offered to "provide my humble insight" regarding a prominent and "honorable" local family whom he has known for 12 years.
"With regard to Michael's offense, I will offer no excuse, but to say that I believe he has the benefit of a strong family surrounding him, who will provide the right type of support and demand accountability from him as he moves from the tragic decisions that he alone bears responsibility for," Belmar wrote.
Belmar told the Post-Dispatch that John Saracino and his brother Michael, the defendant's father, asked him to reach out to the judge.
"I believe I have a good track record of law and order, and part of that also is, there is room in the world for compassion," the chief told the newspaper in an earlier interview.
Michael Saracino II pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute more than 1,000 kilograms of marijuana. Twelve others were indicted, with Saracino and two other defendants ordered to pay $334,000 in restitution for damage caused by the 2013 firebombing of a 72-year-old woman's home. The intended target was a neighbor's house.
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