Oliver Hamilton, the former East St. Louis Township supervisor, received a five-year prison sentence Thursday for using taxpayer funds for personal purchases, including vacations, gifts, construction materials and gasoline.
The prison term handed down by Judge Michael Reagan was twice as long as the 30-month sentence recommended by prosecutors.
The judge also sentenced Hamilton to three years of parole after Hamilton’s release, and ordered him to pay $40,000 in restitution.
Hamilton, when given an opportunity to address the court, was contrite. “I understand that I have done wrong,” he told the judge.
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Reagan, in delivering the sentence, noted that Hamilton stole from the poor.
“I can think of nothing worse than taking from the indigent,” Reagan said. “This community in some places looks like Dresden in World War II.”
Reagan ruled that Hamilton, who has been free on bond, can report later to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to begin serving his term.
In a surprise move, prosecutors Thursday pulled an amended plea deal off the table that called for two years in prison but no fine for Hamilton, and changed it to 30 months.
Defense attorney Clyde Kuehn encouraged Reagan to consider Hamilton’s background growing up in East St. Louis in a culture that had become apathetic to corruption.
“I ask that you temper the punishment with mercy,” Kuehn said.
The two-year plea deal for Hamilton had been announced Wednesday. A previous plea deal included a prison sentence of one year and one day, plus restitution. The two-year agreement came a week after Reagan wrote a 28-page memorandum in which he said he was not bound by the earlier plea agreement and that, in his opinion, it may not be sufficient enough to deter public corruption or sufficiently punish Hamilton.
In court Thursday, Reagan said that in his 16 years as a federal judge, he has never seen an amended plea agreement. Kuehn and Assistant U.S. Attorney Norm Smith agreed.
“Judges in the same courthouse can have different opinions. Lawyers have different opinions. We reviewed our deal and thought maybe we didn’t get it right,” Smith said during the sentencing hearing.
Smith later added, “This isn’t about $40,000. This is about the loss of faith in the leaders of East St. Louis. He’s grown up in this culture of corruption and has come to believe that this is the way it is.”
Prosecutors recommended a sentence of 30 months in prison. Without a plea deal, Hamilton was eligible for anywhere from probation to 20 years in prison.
The two-year plea agreement came days after Hamilton sent an email to his supporters, saying he expected to get a heavier sentence for going against the “Belleville political party.” He pointed out that Reagan gave a former Moro Township supervisor probation after he admitted to embezzling $700,000.
The cases, while similar, had distinct differences, Reagan said. Don Flack, the Moro Township supervisor, was 80 and had stage 4 cancer. He has since died. Flack had a gambling addiction and did not personally gain from the thefts. Moro Township’s losses were covered by insurance, Reagan said, while East St. Louis Township’s losses were not. Reagan noted that Hamilton stole from the poor.
During the hearing, Reagan read Hamilton’s email in open court. Smith told the judge that Kuehn assured him that Hamilton didn’t send the email. When Reagan asked Hamilton, under oath, whether he sent the email, Hamilton admitted he did.
“Your sentence has nothing to do with your religion, your race or your politics,” Reagan said.
Hamilton’s thefts also reduced services to an already vulnerable East St. Louis community that suffers from violence and poverty.
“You take a dollar from a pauper, you take everything from that man. You take a billion from Jeff Bezos, he still has $75 billion,” Reagan said.
Smith said Hamilton’s crimes are different when compared with petty thefts over a five-year period. Hamilton, Smith said, stole from the “poorest of the poor.”
Before the sentencing hearing began, Reagan questioned Tommy Dancy on the stand. Dancy was appointed to replace Hamilton as township supervisor.
“Would you admit that someone taking $40,000 would be detrimental to the services provided by the township?” Reagan asked Dancy.
“Yes,” Dancy replied.
Hamilton pleaded guilty in December to federal wire fraud charges and misusing at least $40,000 in public money after the Belleville News-Democrat reported Hamilton used a township credit card to make at least $230,000 in personal purchases over a four-year period.
East St. Louis Township does not operate a road department or sewer district, and its only job is to help the needy in an area that has one of the highest poverty rates in Illinois. However, the general assistance and meals on wheels programs in the township have been cut.
“Has what he did hurt the program?” Reagan asked.
“Yes,” Dancy replied.
Dancy said the township talked about hiring Hamilton’s wife, Belynda Hamilton, after Oliver Hamilton resigned, but it didn’t happen.
“In my opinion, it would be a gross error in judgment to hire any of Hamilton’s relatives,” Reagan said.
Dancy told the judge that Hamilton tried to get back-pay after he resigned, but Dancy thwarted the effort.
The BND investigation showed Hamilton charged trips to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, thousands of gallons of gas, more than $3,000 for car washes, detailing and oil changes, flowers, gifts and restaurant meals. The township also paid for building materials, lumber, paint, drywall, tools, bathroom fixtures, cabinets and locks. Hamilton is the owner of Hamilton Construction Co., which had contracts with the East St. Louis Housing Authority.
Hamilton, a Democrat, has been the township supervisor since March 2011. He also represented East St. Louis on the St. Clair County Board and the East Side Health District.
After his guilty plea, Hamilton resigned as township supervisor and turned over the American Express and removed his name from township accounts. Dancy was named as Hamilton’s replacement, but Dancy was defeated by former East St. Louis mayor Alvin Parks in Tuesday’s municipal election.
After the sentencing Thursday, Hamilton told a reporter, “You know you, and I don’t have anything to talk about. You have your job, and I have mine.”