- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 25, 2014

CLAYTON, Mo. (AP) - A top St. Louis County prosecutor has resigned after his messages to a private paralegal surfaced in a federal bribery investigation.

John Quarenghi, 48, left his job as a team leader in the office of Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCullough in December after learning that federal investigators were reviewing his electronic communications with the paralegal. Jillian Nichols, 26, was indicted in federal court last week for allegedly promising a sexual assault defendant favorable treatment from an unnamed prosecutor in exchange for $10,000.

Attorney Neil Bruntager described the text messages, voice mails and photos sent by his client to Nichols as “intimate” and said the two began a relationship after Quarenghi sent Nichols a congratulatory email upon learning she had left her job with attorney Robert Herman five months ago. He said the messages were initiated by Nichols, who has declined to discuss her indictment.

In a previous interview with the newspaper, Nichols said that her former boss suggested she have lunch with Quarenghi and had her work as a liaison between the two lawyers.

Nichols‘ lawyer, Nick Zotos, disputed that there she and Quarenghi had a social relationship but declined to provide details.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (bit.ly/1ef74RK ) reported Tuesday that the former prosecutor’s lawyer said his client is not a target of the bribery probe and stepped down to avoid embarrassing the office. Quarenghi’s duties included handling sex crimes.

“We know he never did anything wrong. Either illegal or unethical,” Bruntager said. “He had no idea what her intentions were.”

U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan declined to identify the prosecutor but said that person “did not solicit any bribe and was completely innocent with regard to the bribery issue.”

Neither Quarenghi nor McCulloch could be reached for comment. Hal Goldsmith, the prosecutor on the federal case, declined to comment. A spokesman for the county prosecutor’s office, Ed Magee, would confirm only that Quarenghi had resigned. Bruntrager said Quarenghi had taken another job as a prosecutor but declined to say where.

Nichols, who on Monday pleaded not guilty to charges of wire fraud and lying to the FBI, allegedly told a client of her former employer that a prosecutor had asked for $10,000 to provide “a deal … something like probation.”

The indictment does not refer to Quarenghi by name nor cite any personal relationship between the prosecutor and Nichols. It also did not name the former client, though state court records suggest it is Ziyaa Umarov.

Umarov, 19, was charged in 2012 with sexual assault and deviate sexual assault. Quarenghi was assigned to prosecute the case, and Nichols was listed in court records as “depositor” for $3,000 used by Umarov to obtain release on bail.

The federal indictment says the unnamed defendant arranged to give Nichols $5,000 up front and the other $5,000 after receiving “favorable consideration and treatment.” Umarov was working with federal investigators, and the money he paid was part of a sting.

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com