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Ethel Shelton and Alex Wheeler

Shelton-Wheeler trial is less about them, more about Elgin-Hunter

Contributed By:The 411 News

Defense aims at separating the presumed innocent from two who have admitted guilt

For Ethel Shelton and Alex Wheeler, former Calumet Township employees, the end nears in their fight against federal corruption charges.

At the start of their trial Monday, April 2, defense attorneys – Andrea Gambino for Shelton and Larry Rogers for Wheeler – had gained a reduction in the charges of the original December 2014 indictment from 11 to two. In 2017, two of their co-defendants, Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin and her son, Steven Hunter, admitted their guilt in a plea bargaining deal in exchange for reduced charges.

All four have been accused of using public offices and services of the Calumet Township for their own personal and political gain. Trustee Elgin was charged with leading “a scheme” of using the public office for her political fundraising committee, the Elgin Political Initiative Committee, and directing township employees to assist in fundraising and campaign work during her terms in office from 2003 through 2014.

The prosecution maintained Elgin required Calumet Township employees to purchase tickets for EPIC’s three annual fundraising events – Unity Prayer Breakfast, Elgin Extravaganza, and Mardi Gras – or face retaliation.

Shelton and Wheeler are also charged with using the resources of Calumet Township in their unsuccessful 2014 election campaigns.

By choosing a jury trial, Wheeler and Shelton elected to fight the government’s case, built on evidence and testimonies from current and former township employees. For Elgin and Hunter, that was a contest they didn’t want.

Separating Shelton and Wheeler further from the guilty Elgin and Hunter was the work set out for defense attorneys in the first week of the trial.

And prosecutors seem to be helping them out, calling 7 witnesses to testify about purchasing tickets for Elgin’s fundraising events and working on her political campaigns during work hours. But the majority of the witness testimonies were about Elgin and Hunter.

Their star witness Stafford Garbutt, Elgin’s executive assistant, secretly took photos and video recorded meetings and conversations held in the last year of Elgin’s term, during working hours at the township office at 610 Connecticut Street. In those meetings during 2013-14, attended by supervisors or deputies as they were called at the township, discussions of campaign matters regularly mixed with official township responsibilities.

Alex Wheeler was director of the township’s job search and training program. Mary Shelton was Trustee Elgin’s secretary. Both were candidates in the 2014 primary election for seats on the Calumet Township Advisory Board. Garbutt said he created campaign materials for Elgin, Shelton and Wheeler during work hours at the township office.

Gladys Miller, a current township employee with 22 years of service, testified Shelton was the person at the township office responsible for disbursing event tickets to department heads and receiving payments from employees who purchased fundraising tickets. From Shelton, Miller received an envelope with tickets for each staff member in her department.

Miller, a manager in the township’s finance department said Shelton reminded her not to make personal lists of employee ticket purchases “because they were political donations.”

Miller also told prosecutors, “One year I didn’t buy the Unity Breakfast tickets. When I paid for the Extravaganza tickets, Shelton asked me to transfer part of that money for payment on the breakfast tickets, but I refused.”

Elena Lynch, a former employee, worked in the township’s Information Systems & Technology department that was under the direction of Steven Hunter. Lynch testified that Hunter reduced her duties after she failed to purchase fundraising tickets. Uncomfortable with the office situation, Lynch resigned.

Cross-examination of Lamar Taylor, a supervisor at the township’s Multi-Purpose Center said neither Shelton nor Wheeler was involved in EPIC meetings. Taylor also managed Trustee Elgin’s political campaigns. As a deputy, Taylor testified he never told his staff they were required to purchase fundraising tickets. He also testified to never knowing employees who lost their jobs because of their refusal to purchase tickets.

Prosecutors exhibited a transcript of a meeting discussing township employees who didn’t purchase fundraising tickets in which Wheeler states, “You got to bust some heads, Mary, else they know there won’t be any consequences.”

Horace Clay, currently a maintenance employee for the township, testified he was not pressured to buy tickets, “… but I felt if I didn’t buy tickets, I might lose my job.” He said Shelton put him on a payment plan of $12 that was deducted from his paycheck to help him purchase tickets.

Extravaganza tickets were $100 each, the Unity Prayer Breakfast and Mardi Gras tickets were $30 each. Clay was given two Extravaganza tickets and 2 each for the Unity Breakfast and Mardi Gras.

Testifying for the prosecution, Cynthia Holman-Upshaw worked at the township for 41 years and retired in 2016 as deputy of township general assistance. “I knew I couldn’t be terminated for political reasons,” Holman-Upshaw told prosecutors, “but I felt obligated to purchase tickets.” She also testified to being on the decorating committee for the Extravaganza which she performed during work hours. Holman-Upshaw was given 5 Extravaganza tickets to purchase.

During cross-examination, Holman-Upshaw testified Shelton didn’t attend deputy meetings.

John Davis, a former information systems support technician for the township testified for the prosecution that he helped move decorations for the Extravaganza from the township office and helped arrange the decorations at the Genesis Center, during working hours.

At the trial’s start, Judge Joseph S. Van Bokkelen told the jury they could find both defendants guilty or innocent; or they could convict one and release the other.

Witnesses for the defense will begin their testimony this week. Judge Van Bokkelen expects the trial to last 2½ weeks.

Prosecution witness Stafford Garbutt

Story Posted:04/09/2018

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