Poor township's leader spends $230K on AmEx card
In a township with one of the highest poverty rates in Illinois, the man elected to help the poor has indulged in lavish and possibly unapproved spending of taxpayer money, including Las Vegas trips, $34 car washes and flowers and gifts for his political allies.
East St. Louis Township Supervisor Oliver Hamilton spent $84,970 over an 18-month period on an American Express card, according to township financial records released under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act as part of a Belleville News-Democrat investigation.
Two members of the four-member township board, whose job is to monitor and approve spending, said they didn’t know there were any credit cards in the township’s name.
Hamilton admitted he used the card for personal use, but denied any wrongdoing and said he reimbursed the township. The township failed to provide proof that Hamilton repaid many of his personal purchases, and in other cases provided questionable documentation.
In an interview, Hamilton said his mission is “to do what we need to do to help people.” He said he didn’t realize he had charged nearly $85,000 on a township credit card over 18 months.
“I mean, I don’t go and say we done this, we done that and it added up to this. No,” Hamilton said. “I’m just trying to do what’s right for the people.”
In a community where 45 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level, Hamilton’s American Express card shows thousands of dollars spent on gas, travel, restaurant tabs, car washes and merchandise, mostly building supplies, from June 1, 2014, to Dec. 31, 2015. The BND requested three years of township financial records, and the township agreed to provide half.
The card assigned to Hamilton, who owns a construction company, also was used to buy paint, drywall, lumber, cabinetry, power tools, tractor tires, locks, nails and bathroom fixtures. All of these purchases were sales tax exempt.
The building materials were primarily purchased at Home Depot, Walmart, Lowe’s and Erb Turf, a landscaping supply store in Swansea, and totaled about $33,400. Hamilton said they were used at the Clyde Jordan Center at 6755 State St. and a building at 1210 State St. where the township offices were formerly housed.
“There have been various repairs at both facilities, due to age and neglect,” he said in a written statement in response to submitted questions.
Hamilton said in a later interview he bought many of the materials to give to contractors doing work for the township because “many of these contractors are poor.”
I mean, I don’t go and say we done this, we done that and it added up to this. No. I’m just trying to do what’s right for the people.
East St. Louis Township Supervisor Oliver Hamilton
“Many of the people we use are competent craftsmen without the affiliation necessary to work steadily in our town,” Hamilton stated. “Many are poor, by any standard, but available for labor or labor plus materials. Using local contractors and giving them a chance to come up is part of the town’s effort to rebuild our tax base and employment base.”
Asked why taxpayers should front supplies for private contractors, Hamilton said, “There was a lot of work done. We needed it.”
The township records show three contractors were paid for small jobs at the two buildings for a total of about $9,000. None would be considered poor. As for the more than $33,000 spent at big box hardware supply stores and a lawn equipment service company, Hamilton said all the purchases were justified.
John Hardaway, the only contractor of the three who lives in the township, said he received “some paint” from Hamilton to complete a job at the Clyde Jordan Center last year. Township financial records show he was paid with two checks, one for $1,500 and one for $250.
“I can only remember the one job,” Hardway said.
A review of the financial records shows the township has operated without basic financial safeguards, including using a stamp of Hamilton’s signature instead of getting two signatures to authorize checks, and not submitting credit card bills to the township board for approval. Some checks made out to Hamilton contained just his stamped signature.
“There are basic safeguards missing here. It’s odd it’s not the clerk signing the checks,” said Joe Behnken, a certified public accountant and former Republican member of the St. Clair County Board who also headed the Southwestern Illinois Development Authority.
June Hamilton Dean, who is Hamilton’s sister and the township’s financial consultant, and township business manager Yvette Johnson also have township American Express credit cards in their names. Like Hamilton’s, they are paid electronically and don’t go before the township board for approval.
During the 18 months for which the BND received records, Hamilton Dean spent $2,288 and Johnson $7,053 for a total of $9,341 — or 11 percent of what Oliver Hamilton spent. The total spent on the three cards was $94,310.
There are basic safeguards missing here. It’s odd it’s not the clerk signing the checks.
Joe Behnken, certified public accountant and former Republican St. Clair County Board member
Johnson controls the township’s financial records and also keeps the books for the nonprofit Clyde C. Jordan Food Bank. She was convicted in 2006 on federal vote fraud charges and received probation. She declined to comment.
Townships have a state mandate to assist the needy. Many townships in the metro-east maintain highways or sewers, but East St. Louis Township’s only role is to help the poor and elderly.
In 2014, the township had a $2.5 million deficit. The latest township audit for 2015 by the Belleville firm Scheffel & Boyle shows a expenditures of $1.6 million. Of that, just $285,780 — or 18 cents on the dollar — was earmarked for “general assistance.” Much of the rest goes to administration.
In East St. Louis Township, that public assistance basically consisted of buying food for a food pantry, hosting “Soul Food Sunday” dinners for residents and purchasing school supplies and clothes for needy children, the financial records show.
The auditors warned that they had “serious ongoing concerns” that the township could continue as a viable financial entity.
Township board members Edith Moore and Ricky Eastern said they did not know how much Hamilton spent or what he bought on his township American Express card. Board member Michael Roberts declined to comment and member Troy Mosley could not be reached. Harry Hollingsworth, the township clerk, also said he was unaware of the supervisor’s credit card account.
“I had no idea about any credit cards. I know nothing about that or about any trips to Las Vegas or anywhere else,” said Moore, who also is head of the East St. Louis Community Development Department. These kinds of costs “should have come before us on the board,” she said.
Bryan Smith, executive director of Township Officials of Illinois, agreed.
“All charges like that have to go before the board before they are paid,” he said.
Hamilton said his charges went before the board, and he didn’t know why Moore and Eastern would say they were unaware of his township credit card.
‘It’s hard to believe’
East St. Louis Township paid $45,700 during the 18-month period to a construction company operating out of a run-down boarding house owned by Hamilton at 1232 Cleveland Ave. One of the residents of the boarding home is Earnest Walker, 52, who is listed as president of Padron Construction Co., according to the Illinois secretary of state’s office.
The state dissolved Padron Construction on Jan. 10, 2014, for failing to file an annual report. But the township continued to pay Padron through at least December 2015 for grass mowing, snow removal and janitorial work for the township. Checks were made out to “Padrone.”
Hamilton also owns and operates Hamilton Contractors Inc. out of the same boarding house on Cleveland Avenue. It is licensed by the state. He said he is not involved with Padron Construction.
Asked how two construction companies can operate out of the same location and not be connected, Hamilton said, “I know it’s hard to believe.”
Walker manages the boarding house, described as Hamilton Shelter Care on the township’s website. It is not licensed by the state or city, Hamilton said. Walker could not be reached for comment.
June Hamilton Dean, a Scott Air Force Base civilian employee and an East St. Louis City Council member, is paid $33,000 a year as the township’s financial consultant. She told the BND the township would not do business with a dissolved corporation.
“Padrone Construction Co. is owned by Earnest Walker. We make every effort to conduct business with duly organized companies registered with all proper authorities,” Hamilton said in a written statement. “When we find that companies are not properly registered at the city, state or federal level, we discontinue our business relationships with them.”
Hamilton Dean said in her role as the township’s financial consultant, she looks for “big picture stuff” and doesn’t get involved “with day to day. I don’t nitpick every little thing. ... I am not looking at it at that level.”
Oliver Hamilton, 62, a Democrat, is paid a salary of $64,000 as township supervisor and $19,400 as a St. Clair County Board member. He was elected out of the Cleveland Avenue house where his construction company is based, which he says is his official voting residence. He claims a $1,700 partial owner-occupied tax exemption on the building, according to county property records.
Meanwhile, Hamilton’s wife, Belynda, is listed as a renter at a house at 2610 N. 89th St., Caseyville, according to a village occupancy permit. Oliver Hamilton is listed as the owner of the house but he gave his residence as 1232 Cleveland Ave. in East St. Louis.
Tools, paint, tires
Most of the building materials and tools purchased with Hamilton’s American Express card were charged at a Home Depot store in Collinsville, sometimes on multiple trips in a single day, according to a review of monthly credit card statements
On a Saturday in March 2015, Hamilton made two trips to the Collinsville Home Depot, one at 11 a.m. to buy a door lock, a knocker, a padlock, a 69-piece lock kit, and a second door lock kit for a total of $118.23, and two hours later to buy a wood chisel, and a “deluxe 400 rotary tool kit,” for $98.46.
Other purchases from Home Depot include:
▪ A laser compound miter saw for $224.25, a tool used to make precise cuts in wood and laminates.
▪ Rental of a two-man auger, used to dig holes in the ground, for $78 a day.
▪ Small items including a 7 ¼-inch carbide saw blade, a sledge hammer, conduit cable, light bulbs, an emergency exit sign with batteries, wire and connectors, drill bits, spray paint, electrical outlets and a “radar square edge” measuring tool, for a total of $724.05.
▪ Sixty gallons of paint for $1,451.
There also was a receipt from a St. Louis tire shop for two rear tires for a total of $1,100 that were placed on a tractor regularly parked at 1232 Cleveland that Hamilton said belongs to him. Hamilton said the township occasionally uses the tractor to cut grass.
In April, Hamilton told reporters his company cleans and repairs apartments for the federally run East St. Louis Housing Authority before new tenants move in. Housing authority records show Hamilton Contractors Inc. received more than $100,000 in payments in 2012 and again in 2013, and $17,250 in 2014. Later records were not available.
Hamilton’s company also has a current $8,000 annual contract to cut grass for the city.
Fill ’er up
Hamilton’s township credit card was used to buy $11,989 worth of gasoline during the 18-month period covered by the financial records, sometimes in multiple trips a day.
The township has one vehicle — a 2009 Ford Explorer that Hamilton said he seldom drives. He said he usually drives his personal 2015 Chevrolet Silverado pickup for township business. Unlike many townships in the metro-east, East St. Louis Township does not have a highway department or do road work.
Over 10 days in June 2014, the card was used to buy 215 gallons of gas in seven trips to a gas station, including five $100 purchases that each would have filled the 36-gallon tank of Hamilton’s Silverado. This is enough fuel to drive the truck, which averages 16 miles per gallon, about 3,440 miles — or from the metro-east to Chicago 10 times.
During the 18-month reporting period, Hamilton made 230 trips to gas stations, including 59 visits to a Gas Mart at 902 S. Broadway in St. Louis, according to township credit card receipts.
On March 15, 2015, the card was used to buy $230 in gas at the St. Louis station. On 13 occasions overall, Hamilton’s card was charged exactly $100 for gas. The largest purchase was $114.82; the lowest was 57 cents.
Hamilton said many of the purchases involved filling five-gallon cans so Earnest Walker, Hamilton’s boarding house manager and Padron Construction president, could mow grass. Padron receives $1,500 per month in season for mowing township property, vacant lots and for some residents free of charge.
$224Amount spent on township credit card at Home Depot on a laser compound miter saw
$724spent for saw blades, drill bits, conduit cable, exit sign and other items at Home Depot
$1,100For tires for a tractor owned by Hamilton that’s used to cut grass for the townshuip
On April 26-27, 2015, Hamilton used his township credit card to travel to a home he owns in Oxford, Miss., a round trip of 700 miles. Total gas cost for that trip: $210.20.
Asked why he charged his gas for a personal trip to a public card, he said, “I’m sure I reimbursed the township.” He said he would provide proof to the BND of repayment for the gasoline purchases but did not do so.
During that same trip, he charged a $94.15 purchase on the township credit card at a Home Depot in Oxford. Hamilton declined to say what he bought there.
In a written, unsigned response on township letterhead, the township said the Oxford Home Depot purchase was for $152.42, even though the credit card statement says $94.15.
“A deposit ticket dated 3/29/16 shows the deposit/repayment of funds for items purchased in Oxford, Mississippi, which were deemed ineligible by township officials,” the statement said.
The township gave no explanation for the differing amounts or why repayment was made nearly a year later, after the BND questioned the purchase.
A token of our esteem
Hamilton’s township credit card was used to buy fruit baskets called “edible arrangements” and flowers for office employee birthdays, funerals and political allies.
One purchase was a $77.08 arrangement of fruit and chocolate-dipped pineapple for George Laktzian, a $33,000-a-year consultant for the township.
On the same day, an $83.37 charge was placed on Johnson’s township credit card for a fresh strawberry, pineapple and cantaloupe arrangement for Jackie Perkins, a candidate for the St. Clair County Board as a New Vision Democrat, a newly formed political group headed by Hamilton. A Mylar balloon that read “Happy Birthday” was attached to each arrangement.
The township also paid:
▪ $150 for a plant sent to the funeral of Willie “Big Mac” McIntosh, a Democrat and former Canteen Township supervisor who also was a member of the St. Clair County Board.
▪ $102.53 for an edible arrangement for County Board member Marty Crawford, also the Centreville Township highway superintendent, who was hospitalized.
▪ $150 each for flowers for the funerals of retired East St. Louis District 189 teacher and Democratic precinct committeeman R.J. Krause and East St. Louis Election Board Chairman Elmer Jones.
▪ $200 for commemorative booklets to celebrate the election of East St. Louis Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks.
▪ $300 for the funeral of Walter Bush, a former city electrician whose wife still owns a building at 2719 State St. where both Hamilton Contractors Inc. and Padron Construction Co. were once housed.
“Donations for the publication of commemorative booklets for the mayoral inauguration were approved,” Hamilton said in a written statement. “The township has purchased florals, fruit baskets and other items for employees and local citizens.”
The statement says the floral purchases didn’t exceed Hamilton’s $6,000 annual expense account, but the township did not provide verification that Hamilton has an expense account or copies of any expense account receipts that should be retained under federal income tax laws.
Some gifts and political donations were paid for by checks written out of the township general fund. There were checks to the East St. Louis branch of the national AKA Sorority for $125; Muhammad Mosque in East St. Louis for $400; the St. Clair County Democratic Party for $125, and the East St. Louis Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for $1,200.
The township also paid $700 to a recently released convicted felon.
In August 2015, the township paid former East St. Louis and Alorton Police Chief Michael Baxton to work as a security guard. In 2012, Baxton pleaded guilty to theft of evidence and was sentenced to federal prison for one year.
“When the ladies work late, I like to have some security around,” Hamilton said.
What happens in Vegas
Hamilton and township board member Michael Roberts made two trips, in May and December 2015, to Las Vegas to attend what Hamilton initially said were seminars on the growing of flowers and vegetables in water, a process known as hydroponics. Their wives accompanied them at taxpayer expense, according to Hamilton’s credit card statements.
Hamilton said he couldn’t remember who hosted the events or the locations. The purpose of the trips, according to a township statement, was to obtain training to be able to grow “locally-sourced food” that includes tomatoes, lettuce and other vegetables for local residents who are poor and live in a “food desert” where fresh produce is hard to come by.
The only indoor growing event scheduled for 2015 in Las Vegas that the BND found was the Indoor AgCon workshop held March 29-30 at the University of Las Vegas downtown campus, according to a spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. The Association for Vertical Farming hosted the event.
In an interview, Roberts said he remembered going to an event in Las Vegas with his wife and the Hamiltons sometime last year but he couldn’t remember what it was about. Asked whether the trip was charged to Hamilton’s township American Express card, Roberts said, “I don’t know anything about how it was paid.” He declined further comment.
Four Southwest Airline tickets for the trip in May cost $382 each, or $1,528 total, according to the credit card statements. There was a $323 charge for a rental car and a $184 parking charge at Lambert/St. Louis Airport. This was for parking at $46 per day in the short-term garage, just across the street from the baggage pickup at Terminal II. Long-term parking, which runs $5 to $9 per day, requires patrons to commute on a free shuttle bus.
The township issued two checks to Hamilton for this two-day Las Vegas trip — one for $1,499 and one for $696 marked “per diem” for expenses. It offered a $382 check on the Hamiltons’ personal checking account as proof that he repaid the cost of his wife’s airline ticket to the township. However, the check provided did not appear to show that it was canceled, which would indicate it was never cashed.
The BND requested more details about the reason for the Las Vegas trips. The township supplied this written response: “Our trips to Las Vegas were part of our effort to observe small hydroponic operations and to understand the retail cost of development.” The statement mentioned two hydroponic supply shops in Las Vegas that were visited.
The township did not offer an explanation about why Hamilton and Roberts traveled 1,600 miles to Las Vegas to learn about hydroponics instead of visiting one of at least a dozen hydroponic retail outlets in eastern Missouri or 50 such stores in central and southwestern Illinois.
They call me ‘Miss No.’ I am always saying ‘no’ to something. I am by the book.
June Hamilton Dean, township financial consultant
The Hamiltons and Robertses returned to Las Vegas in December, according to township records. Each airline ticket cost $379.96, or $1,519.84 total. The credit card statement entries for the wives’ tickets were marked “reim” in handwriting but the township provided no proof of reimbursement. Hotel charges were not listed. The couples once again parked in the short-term garage at the $46 per day rate for a total cost of $138.
The final word from the township on the Las Vegas trips came in a written response on May 10: “The supervisor and trustee (Roberts) decided to reimburse the township for tickets following their research in Las Vegas.” The township provided no proof of repayment.
The records also show the Hamiltons used the township American Express card for a trip last July to Los Angeles. Total cost was $1,684.65 and included airfare, hotel and $307 for a car rental. No parking cost was submitted.
The township did not answer the BND’s written questions about why public money was used for this trip, or the purpose of the trip. Ten days after the Hamiltons returned, on July 30, the township issued Oliver Hamilton a check for $355 marked “per diem.” It gave no further information.
They call me ‘Miss No’
At least three township checks intended as payment to others instead were made out to Oliver Hamilton, the financial records released to the BND show. Hamilton said he cashed the checks and paid the person or company with cash or a money order.
When told that checks for others were issued to her brother, Hamilton Dean, the township’s financial consultant, said, “I don’t think that’s proper.”
One check dated July 24, 2014, for $3,000 made out to Oliver Hamilton appeared to contain Hamilton’s actual signature instead of a usual signature stamp. It was payment to a St. Louis construction company for repair work at the Clyde Jordan Center, according to the records.
Another check dated Aug. 19, 2015, was intended to help an East St. Louis mother with three young children pay her back rent.
The woman said she received money in one lump sum — about $900 — from the Urban League and the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood Center, a non-profit organization in East St. Louis, but received no money from the township.
A written response from the township stated, “The supervisor assisted (the woman) by making a direct payment to Parson’s Place authorities via an official bank check.” A copy of the check to the landlord was dated Jan. 15, 2016 — more than four months after the township check for $900 was written to Hamilton on Aug. 19, 2015. It did not explain why Hamilton waited four months to make the rent payment.
A third check for $170 was written to Hamilton for reimbursement of five car washes at $34 each. Instead of computer-generated receipts from the business, Hamilton turned in a generic receipt, the kind that can be purchased at a drug store. It contained no business name or address and listed no specific dates, only “2015.”
In an interview, Hamilton Dean said, “They call me ‘Miss No.’ I am always saying ‘no’ to something. I am by the book.” She said she would give examples of what spending she has turned down, but did not do so.
Facts about East St. Louis Township
- Population (2015) — 26,790
- Median household income (2014) — $19,856
- Those who live below the poverty line — 45 percent
- Percentage of population who are black — 98 percent
- Percentage 25 and older with a high school diploma — 79 percent
- Percentage 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree — 8 percent
- Minority-owned businesses — 1,681
- Average time spent commuting to work — 25 minutes
Source: U.S. Census Bureau