Metro-East News

Baked ham, tour boat cruise: Excess marks ESL Township credit cards

East St. Louis Township Supervisor Oliver Hamilton outside the Township Offices which are located at the Clyde Jordan Senior Center on State Street in East St. Louis. He was walking from his parking space.
East St. Louis Township Supervisor Oliver Hamilton outside the Township Offices which are located at the Clyde Jordan Senior Center on State Street in East St. Louis. He was walking from his parking space. tvizer@bnd.com

On a warm Saturday evening on June 9, 2012, a tour boat set off on a 75-minute cruise carrying tourists along the Chicago River who paid to see the city’s famous downtown architecture. It ended with a fireworks show.

The public paid $65.40 for a pair of tickets, $25 for parking at Navy Pier, and $15.59 for a pizza — all charged to a no-limit American Express card supported by taxpayers in East St. Louis Township, one of Illinois’ poorest communities.

These costs were charged to a publicly-supported American Express card issued to Township Supervisor Oliver Hamilton, who is the subject of a federal investigation. Travel costs to Chicago for this same weekend were placed on another publicly-supported American Express card issued to his sister, June Hamilton Dean, who receives $33,000 a year as a consultant to the township and is a member of the East St. Louis City Council.

Oliver Hamilton and June Hamilton Dean have declined to comment.

According to state law, the $105.99 outlay for the tour and pizza was supposed to benefit the public, the legal requirement whenever taxpayer money is spent. The trip’s costs were among tens of thousands of dollars in questionable charges from 2012 through July of 2016 — from Christmas hams to $291 spent at an IKEA store and enough gas to get to the moon.

“Vacations, IKEA furniture, even gourmet hams being put on publicly-supported charge cards gives a whole new meaning to pork barrel spending,” said Curtis Kalin, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Citizens Against Government Waste.

“No public official should dine out on the taxpayer’s dime,” Kalin said, “This flagrant abuse of tax dollars for personal amusement and entertainment is shameful. It is a textbook case of how lax government oversight inevitably leads to a jaw-dropping level of waste. Local taxpayers deserve better. We encourage law enforcement officials who are investigating this disgraceful saga of corruption to follow wherever it leads.”

But the Chicago tour cost was miniscule when compared to the nearly $40,000 in more than 750 separate gas purchases during four and a half years charged to Oliver Hamilton’s card. This was enough fuel to power Hamilton’s current vehicle, a 2015 Chevy Silverado pickup, 243,000 miles — or to the moon with 13,000 miles to spare.

And the gasoline spending is dwarfed by single-day charges at big-box stores, including $5,092 at the Walmart in O’Fallon on Aug. 30, 2012; $12,500 at the Collinsville Walmart on Dec. 12, 2012; $8,073 at the Home Depot in Collinsville on July 1, 2013; $6,996 at the Walmart in O’Fallon on Aug. 23, 2013.

In all, $280,000 was charged on three, publicly-supported American Express cards issued to Hamilton, his sister and Yvette Johnson, the township’s administrative assistant, who also declined comment. Of this, about $230,000 was charged by Hamilton.

Hamilton’s card has a $1,000 monthly limit by the township board, but this has been ignored. Specific credit card costs are not noted in township board minutes. And the credit card spending has continued, even though the most recent outside audit in 2014 warned that the township was on the brink of bankruptcy.

The News-Democrat obtained monthly statements through the Freedom of Information Act for all township American Express Statements from Jan. 1, 2012, to July 29, 2016. But actual store receipts were provided only for an 18-month period — the last six months of 2014 and for 2015, the subject of a previous article.

The BND has spent the past three months reporting on questionable township spending that included expensive car washes, trips to Las Vegas and tens of thousands of dollars for building supplies. The spending, which two board members said they were not aware of, has resulted in a federal grand jury investigation.

The grand jury will meet Sept. 20 at the U.S. District Courthouse in East St. Louis to hear testimony, according to a copy of a subpoena issued to several people in the township.

Everyday purchases

Statements for credit cards issued to Hamilton and his sister showed hundreds of everyday purchases — from a few dollars at a fast-food restaurant to hundreds and even thousands of dollars from online stores, airlines, hotels, gift shops, large retail outlets, pharmacies and restaurants.

Hamilton Dean’s card statements showed a series of purchases during the trip to Chicago and back in 2012. The charges on the way up on June 8 included:

▪  $59.75 for gas in Pontiac plus snacks for $22.74.

▪  Lunch in Farmersville for $45.94 and dinner at Mattson’s Steakhouse in Burbank east of Chicago for $77.70.

On June 9, the day of the boat ride, her card was charged:

▪  $40.53 at Portillo’s Hot Dogs in Oaklawn, $18.77 at a Snappy’s Convenience Store near Chicago and $70 at Chicago’s Bistro Restaurant.

There was also a $30.20 charge at a Walgreen’s retail store, one of several Walgreen’s purchases over the years on Hamilton Dean’s card. She did not respond to a written question asking whether the pharmacy charges paid for prescription medicine.

The return drive on June 10 showed charges of:

▪  $52.47 for gas in Chicago, $64.36 for gas in Hamel, and $23.69 for snacks.

▪  $35.08 at Culver’s Restaurant in Bloomington.

▪  And when the card was back in the metro-east Sunday evening, $92.16 at Longhorn Steakhouse in O’Fallon.

Hamilton Dean’s card also was used to charge $291 at an IKEA furniture store in Bolingbrook just before Christmas in 2012. On that same day, the card was used to pay an $85 bill at Brio Tuscan Grille in Lombard, in northern Illinois. Three days later, it was used to charge $500.69 at Target in Fairview Heights.

Three days before Christmas in 2012, Hamilton Dean’s card was charged $171.95 at the Honey Baked Ham store in Olivette, Mo. She did not respond to a written question asking who ate the ham.

On June, 12, 2013, Hamilton Dean’s card was used to pay for two purchases of $1,413.50 each from Konik and Co., of Skokie, which sells promotional supplies including “political campaign kits.” Five days later, her card was charged $480.55 for a three-day vehicle rental at Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Berkeley, Mo. She did not respond to a written question about the purpose of the purchases.

Previously, Hamilton Dean has said her card was used by others with her permission to attend meetings for Cease Fire, a discontinued Chicago-based, anti-violence program that was criticized by the Illinois Inspector General for faulty record-keeping. However, a check of Cease Fire newsletters did not list any meetings by the organization in Chicago during the boat tour weekend of June 9-10, 2012.

Cease Fire pay records show that Hamilton Dean had no association with the program until shortly before it was discontinued by Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2014, when she was paid $4,075 as a financial consultant to the program.

Oliver Hamilton, the township supervisor, regularly ate at restaurants outside the township, the financial records showed. He charged $102.53 at Eleven Eleven Mississippi Street in St. Louis, a restaurant that features “rustic Tuscan cuisine.” Another $91.50 was charged at Fischer’s Restaurant in Belleville.

Hamilton’s smallest dining purchase was $2.59 at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in St. Louis. His most expensive restaurant tab was at the Casino Queen’s Sevens Sports Bar and Nightclub, where his township card was charged $165.28.

Hamilton also apparently bought gifts, including $419 charged at Things Remembered, a gift shop in Belleville. He made two trips to a Radio Shack in East St. Louis and spent $100 each time. And he used the public credit card to make thousands of dollars worth of purchases through the online Amazon Marketplace.

In January 2013, there was $93.14 charged on Hamilton’s card at Burlington Coat Factory in Fairview Heights. He has used the public card to pay for numerous hotel charges including the Westin and Sheraton in Chicago, and the Hyatt in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, purchased through Expedia.com.

Hamilton also spent more than $3,000 on car washes, detailing and oil changes.

Gasoline purchases

Hamilton’s spending at gas stations dominated the monthly American Express bills paid for by the township.

During a previous interview, before he stopped talking with reporters on the advice of his attorney, Hamilton said the gasoline was used to fill gas cans for lawn mowing, even though a company owned by his friend and business associate, Ernest Walker, was paid $1,500 a month to mow township property. The BND unsuccessfully sought a copy of the township mowing contract to determine if Walker’s contract covered gas.

Hamilton made 775 separate gas purchases over the 4 1/2-year period for which records were made available, mostly at an Exxon station in East St. Louis and a GasMart in St. Louis. He purchased $100 or more of gas on 89 days during the the period. On 33 other days, he bought at least $150 in gas. On seven days, he bought $200 or more in gas.

The record single-day gas buy was $265.72 in three trips to GasMart on Oct. 13, 2012. The card statement showed this was for 72 gallons, enough fuel to power Hamilton’s Silverado pickup about 1,150 miles. Yet the American Express records showed he returned to the same GasMart four days later and bought 21 gallons for $74, and the next day spent $100 at the Exxon station.

An attendant at GasMart in St. Louis told reporters, who showed him a photo of Hamilton, “I remember him. He drives a pearl-colored truck. He buys gas and cigarettes. I see him all the time.”

The monthly credit card statements show Hamilton used his township credit card twice at a BP station in Osage Beach, Mo., at Lake of the Ozarks. He did not respond to a written question asking what township business he was conducting there.

During a two-week road trip in 2013 through Missouri, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and finally Mississippi, where he has a home, Hamilton’s township credit card was charged $548 for gas alone. On Aug. 11, the day after Hamilton returned to the metro-east, he charged $108.26 for an oil change, car wash and detailing at the Auto Spa in Fairview Heights.

The township board approved the $1,000 monthly spending limit for Hamilton’s card in February 2012 but records show it was exceeded every month that followed, including a high of $23,359 in January of 2013. Lori Riverstone-Newell, associate professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, was asked what the public can do if the spending limit is ignored.

“It’s complicated, but some resolutions will define the jurisdiction and penalties for violations, generally reserving jurisdiction to the board or council. If there is a code of ethics, penalties for violations should be found there,” Riverstone-Newell said in a written comment.

“As to criminal charges, the U.S. Attorney should be notified to investigate,“ she said. “The chance of recovering the loss to the township is pretty slim, although part of a criminal penalty might be restitution. The board members will probably be able to hold their positions while the investigation is underway, but they should be pressured to resign.”

George Pawlaczyk: 618-239-2625, @gapawlaczyk

Beth Hundsdorfer: 618-239-2570, @bhundsdorfer

A sample of unquestioned credit card charges

According to township meeting minutes, the four-member East St. Louis Township trustee board has never questioned charges made on the township’s American Express credit cards issued to Supervisor Oliver Hamilton and his sister, June Hamilton Dean, a township financial consultant. Here are some of the charges:

HAMILTON

  • 12/11/12 — $12,500, Walmart in Collinsville
  • 12/18/12 — $2,648, Walmart, Collinsville
  • 12/22/12 — $2,949, Walmart, Collinsville
  • 8/23/13 — $1,091, Walmart, O’Fallon
  • 8/23/13 — $6,997, Walmart, O’Fallon
  • 8/23/13 — $1,146, Walmart, O’Fallon
  • 7/1/12 — $900, Home Depot, Collinsville
  • 7/2/12 — $1,979, Walmart, Belleville
  • 7/3/12 — $927, Home Depot, Belleville
  • 7/10/12 — $169, Sears, Fairview Heights
  • 7/12/12 — $109, RadioShack, East St. Louis
  • 8/30/12 — $5,092, Walmart, O’Fallon
  • 9/2/12 — $681, Walmart, O’Fallon
  • 9/5/12 — $691, Walmart, Belleville
  • 9/26/12 — $1,077, Walmart, Cahokia
  • 10/19/12 — $163, St. Peter’s Hardware, Edwradsville
  • 7/1/13 — $8,073, Home Depot, Collinsville
  • 7/5/13 — $3,887, Erb Turf, Swansea
  • 6/14/13 — $759, Best Buy, Fairview Heights
  • 8/26/13 — $1,096, Boston Park Plaza Hotel, Boston, Ma.
  • 11/11/13 — $1,419, Lowe’s, Belleville
  • 12/14/13 — $1,215, Walmart, Granite City
  • 5/12/14 — $123, Auto Spa, Fairview Heights
  • 5/16/14/ — $1,643, Erb Turf, Swansea
  • 4/28/16 – $767.64, Erb Turf, Swansea

HAMILTON DEAN

  • 1/24/12 — $745, Westin Hotel, Chicago
  • 2/5/12— $909, Residence Inn, Bedford Park
  • 3/30/12 — $77, GasMart, St. Louis
  • 3/30/12 — $98, GasMart, St. Louis
  • 4/2/12 — $82, Exxon, East St. Louis
  • 4/3/12 — $100, Exxon, East St. Louis
  • 5/7/12 — $500, Instant Imprints, Chesterfield, Mo.
  • 5/9/12 — $270, Tribout’s Carnival Supplies, Belleville
  • 5/9/12 — $52, Factory Card Outlet, Fairview Heights
  • 5/9/12 — $55, Red Lobster, Fairview Heights
  • 5/10/12 — $548, Instant Imprints, Chesterfield, Mo.
  • 5/10/12 — $14.20 Walgreen’s, East St. Louis
  • 5/10/12 — $330, Walgreen’s, East St. Louis
  • 5/24/12 — $323, Tribout’s Carnival Supplies, Belleville
  • 9/26/12 — $1,077, Walmart, Cahokia
  • 12/19/12 — $501, Target, Fairview Heights
  • 12/21/12 — $128.67, Walmart, O’Fallon
  • 12/21/12 — $364, Walmart, O’Fallon
  • 2/13/13 — $53, Hash House A Go Go, Chicago
  • 5/4/13 — $90, Walmart, O’Fallon
  • 6/16/13 — $487, Residence Inn, Bedford Park
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