A federal court judge has described former East St. Louis Township Supervisor Oliver Hamilton’s years of misusing public funds as “punching holes in a ship taking on water,” and warned that an agreed-upon sentence of a year and a day “... may not be sufficient.”
“In reality (Hamilton) ... was the antithesis of Robin Hood, stealing money earmarked for the poor and keeping it for himself,” U.S. District Chief Judge Michael J. Reagan wrote in a 28-page sentencing memorandum filed Friday in federal court in East St. Louis.
The document outlined not only Hamilton’s $40,000 misuse of public funds mostly through a no-limit township American Express credit card, but also chronicled years of corruption by public officials in East St. Louis complete with bar graphs and other graphics.
Reagan warned that while he is not trying to blame the city’s governmental woes all on Hamilton, he said that federal law requires that he not give the former public official, “a slap on the wrist.”
In a series of investigative articles last year, the Belleville News-Democrat reported that Hamilton charged at least $230,000 over four years, including tens of thousands of dollars in building supplies for which he could not provide a reason they would be charged to the township. Hamilton owns a private construction company.
He also charged $40,000 in gasoline at gas stations all over the metro east and in St. Louis, sometimes buying more than $200 worth of fuel in a single day. He spent thousands of dollars for car washes and detailing for his Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck and used the card to pay for trips, including to Las Vegas.
Federal prosecutors and Hamilton’s lawyer, Clyde Kuehn of Belleville, agreed to a sentence of 366 days and at least $40,000 in restitution in exchange for Hamilton’s guilty plea Dec. 1.
“The court, however, is not bound by the plea agreement or by the recommendation of the parties,” Reagan wrote. He noted that he filed his sentencing memorandum to assess “... the impact of crime and corruption in East St. Louis (and) to address why the term of imprisonment recommended by the sentencing guidelines and the parties may not be sufficient.”
Kuehn could not be reached for comment. However, in a previously filed sentencing memorandum he noted that his client admitted guilt, cooperated with authorities and should be sentenced to a term of imprisonment that is “sufficient” but not greater than necessary. Kuehn and Hamilton agreed with prosecutors that the sentence should be a year and a day.
Reagan also ordered Tommy Dancy, who took over as township supervisor after Hamilton resigned in December, to appear April 3 — the day before Hamilton is scheduled to be sentenced. The order stated that Reagan will ask him a series of questions but did not give further specifics.
In a history outlining the thefts that Hamilton acknowledged when he pleaded guilty to a single wire fraud count, Reagan wrote that Hamilton, “Began stealing within months of being sworn in and continued helping himself to the township’s funds as he pleased for five years. Seemingly no expense was too personal to pay out of township coffers.”
In their sentencing memorandum filed March 21, federal prosecutors detailed the car washes, Home Depot purchases and trips to Las Vegas, but they also included copies of receipts for legitimate purchases, such as food for the township food pantry, school supplies and uniforms for poor children.
Prosecutors also pointed to township checks paid to Padrone Construction, a company operated by Ernest Walker, for grass cutting, janitorial services and snow removal. Walker lives in Hamilton’s boarding house at 1232 Cleveland Ave. in East St. Louis.
Hamilton was the payee for Social Security disability payments for “a number” of individuals who live at the Cleveland Avenue address, the prosecutors’ memo stated.
Walker, prosecutors said, also used the township’s American Express card for non-township business, signing Hamilton’s name and, occasionally, his own. Prosecutors included a copy of a receipt that is signed “Ernest Walker.” Walker has not been charged.
Reagan’s memorandum stated that while the government so far has set his personal use of public funds at $40,000, “... the extent to which he abused this position of public trust to line his own pockets will never be calculated accurately.” The document noted that Hamilton even used public money to pay “... his child support obligations.”
The township’s rapidly increasing deficit also was addressed by Reagan. “As Hamilton was pilfering money for his personal enjoyment, questionably large amounts of money for travel and for car washes, the township was plunging deeper and deeper in debt.” Reagan noted the township has a deficit of $3 million, up $500,000 during the time Hamilton was misusing public funds.
In a community that is one of the poorest in Illinois, Reagan noted that Hamilton, with his $60,000 public salary and money earned through his construction company and other interests, was paid $140,000 yearly, “... seven times more than the median income of an East St. Louis resident.”
In an historical outline, Reagan cited 48 corruption cases in the East St. Louis area including Alorton, Brooklyn and Washington Park, and one in Madison County, that all ended up in federal court in East St. Louis over the past two decades. Most of those were in East St. Louis.
Referring to the city’s corrupt past where, as Reagan’s memorandum stated, 28 public officials, businessmen who dealt with the city, police officers, precinct committeemen, school district officials and members of the city’s regulatory boards have pleaded guilty to crimes, the judge wrote, “There is a great risk that with the rampant public corruption in the East St. Louis area, residents will become apathetic and will view corrupt leadership as the norm, making it more difficult to detect, investigate and prosecute corruption.”
While he cautioned that responsibility for all the corruption cannot be placed on Hamilton, “Nevertheless, he persisted, undeterred in his thievery. Corruption in East St. Louis cannot continue at this rate, and a guidelines sentence in this case may not send a message of deterrence to the public and to the officials tempted to follow in Hamilton’s footsteps.”