HAMMOND — One of former Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin's inner circle brought down her corrupt administration.
Stafford Garbutt, the former strategic adviser to Elgin, testified Tuesday he became an FBI informant, wore a wire and recorded hours of confidential discussions that sealed the conviction of Elgin, once one of the most powerful township officials in the state.
Federal prosecutors introduced Garbutt on Tuesday as their star witness in the trial of two of Elgin's former political operatives, Ethel Shelton and Alex Wheeler, who are pleading not guilty to conspiracy and fraud charges and standing trial this week in U.S. District Court.
Shelton was Elgin's executive secretary. Wheeler was Elgin's former campaign manager and one of her department supervisors.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Abizer Zanzi told a federal jury Tuesday the two defendants betrayed the public trust by helping Elgin shake down her township government employees for money and work for Elgin's election campaigns, and to advance Shelton and Wheeler's personal political ambitions.
Elgin and her son, Steven Hunter, pleaded guilty last spring to compelling township employees to give her campaign 1 percent of their public wages as well as work on her campaign during their township work hours.
Chicago attorney Andrea E. Gambino, who represents Shelton, and Valparaiso attorney Larry W. Rogers, who represents Wheeler, both said their clients were hard-working public servants who were minor figures on Elgin's staff and not part of any illegal conspiracy.
Elgin was Calumet Township trustee from 2003 until 2014. She ran one of the largest townships in the state.
Garbutt testified Elgin once had a payroll of more than 200 employees to distribute assistance to Gary's poorest residents, although her staff had shrunk to less than 100 by 2014 because of state-mandated reductions in property taxes that supported her office.
Federal prosecutors said Elgin played on the job security fears of her employees to compel their political support.
You have free articles remaining.
The government Monday dismissed nine of the 11 felony counts pending against Shelton and Wheeler. They are pleading not guilty to remaining charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and honest government services fraud.
Garbutt, who holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Belize, was a political consultant associated with officials of the Belize government when he met Elgin, a former steelworker union official, during her first campaign for township trustee 12 years ago.
He said he guided her campaign to defeat the incumbent township Trustee Dozier Allen. She hired him at a salary of $60,000 to be her public relations man, and he was part of her committee of most trusted political advisers.
He said he originally confined his political work for Elgin to his off hours at home and advised Elgin, Shelton and Wheeler not to do political work on public time, either. He said Elgin ended the so-called 2 percent club, which demanded township employees pay 2 percent of their salary to former trustees.
However, Garbutt said a corrupt culture developed. Elgin believed her township employees owed her political support, and Shelton and Wheeler assisted her.
He said he went to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and agreed to be a confidential informant. He wore a concealed audio recording device and taped 13 conversations between September 2013 and March 2014 when FBI agents raided the township office.
Less than two months later, voters defeated Elgin for re-election as well as Wheeler and Shelton, who had run for the township advisory board.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Maria N. Lerner played a Sept. 26, 2013, recording of a political strategy meeting Elgin held during an afternoon work day at the township's north annex office, in which Wheeler advised Elgin how to deal with township employees who refused ticket sales: "You gotta take that stick out and bust some damn heads. If you don't, people know there ain't no consequences."
A look back at corruption in the Region
Corruption in the Region: Former Lake County Commissioner Steve C. Corey pleads guilty to lying and obstructing a federal investigation
Name: Steve C. Corey
Office held: Lake County Commissioner
Dates in office: 1983 to 1992
The crime: He lied to a U.S. District Court grand jury investigating bribery in Lake County Government.
Corey was a successful businessman who built a thriving Hobart bakery, once from the ground up in 1954 and again from the ashes of a fire that gutted the business in 1974.
He found time after making the doughnuts to become politically active. He served on the Hobart City Council in the 1960s and was elected to the Lake County Council in 1978 and 1982.
Corey became a county commissioner in December 1983, when Democratic precinct committeemen named him to replace Rudy Bartolomei, better known as Rudy Bart, who took over that year as sheriff.
Federal authorities soon charged Bartolomei with misconduct ranging from making county employees work on his political campaigns and work on a summer cottage on Lake Michigan as well as paying his housemaid with public money and extorting political contributions from county employees.
Bartolomei pleaded guilty to two felony counts and within weeks began cooperating with federal investigators and a grand jury on the web of public corruption over which he and his fellow county officials had presided.
Bartolomei had spent his time on the county board of commissioners cleaning up — so to speak — by awarding inflated janitorial contracts to vendors who paid kickbacks to him and other commissioners.
Authorities subpoenaed thousands of pages of documents, including minutes of commissioners meetings, payment vouchers in a probe called "Operation Lights Out," that resulted in a number of indictments, including that of Corey in 1993 on perjury and obstruction charges charges.
The government alleged Corey lied in July 1989 to a federal grand jury investigating whether Corey had accepted $30,000 from his long-time friend, East Chicago power broker Vincent Kirrin, to steer a lucrative government cleaning contract to a company Kirrin secretly owned and operated.
Corey denied wrongdoing and insisted the money was a business loan to his struggling bakery. But Corey pleaded guilty in February 1994 to lying and obstructing the federal investigation.
Former U.S. Attorney David Capp, who coordinated the federal investigation, said at the time the perjury conviction was "particularly important" because it revealed how contracts were awarded, not through independent assessment of their merits, but on cronyism.
A federal judge sentenced Corey to probation. Corey, who was suffering from a heart condition, died less than a year later.
Corruption in the Region: Corruption was spelled GUEA a decade ago
Name: Gary Urban Enterprise Association
Those involved: Jojuana Meeks, former Lake County Councilman Will Smith, former Gary attorney Willie Harris, former county tax collector Roosevelt Powell
Gary Urban Enterprise Association or GUEA came into existence in 1985 under a state law permitting U.S. Steel and other Gary businesses to reduce their property taxes by making charitable donations of more than $15 million to the association between 2000 and 2003.
The donations were supposed to improve the quality of life of the poor by redeveloping the nearly 3-square-mile area of Gary's Emerson neighborhood.
However, a Times investigation in 2004 found that former GUEA Director Jojuana L. Meeks and other in GUEA embezzling about $1 million through perks like her Jaguar sports car, a new, rehabilitated home and overpayments to herself and other GUEA officials.
The nonprofit collapsed in 2007 after being declared a corrupt business venture. Meeks pleaded guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion. She and other GUEA officials were convicted in U.S. District Court in Hammond.
Federal prosecutors also charged political insiders Roosevelt Powell, Willie Harris and Will Smith with conspiring with GUEA to further bleed it, the Gary Historical Society and Lake County government through an elaborate real estate scheme involving the abandoned Ralph's Grocery store in Gary's Miller section.
Smith learned of that through his political connections that its owners wanted to donate it as a tax write off. Smith conspired with Harris, an attorney for the Historical Society, take over the property.
They had Powell, a county tax collector, to use his influence to induce Meeks, to buy the store for $200,000 on the same day that Powell told a Lake County judge to wipe out $58,000 in back taxes on the building because it couldn't be sold.
The men pocketed significant profits without ever legally owning the building. Their defense lawyers argued the deal was legitimate, but a federal jury convicted them in September 2007.
Corruption in the Region: Former East Chicago city councilman Frank Kollintzas, infamous for sidewalks-for-votes scandal, remains at large after fleeing to Greece in 2005
Name: Frank Kollintzas
Office held: East Chicago city councilman
Dates in office: 1979 to 2005
The crime: A U.S. District Court jury in South Bend in November 2004 convicted then city councilman Frank Kollintzas as well as East Chicago Councilman Je De LaCruz and City Controller Edwardo Maldonado of misappropriating millions of dollars in concrete they gave to residents in the form of free driveways, sidewalks and patios to ensure the city administration's 1999 re-election.
Jurors also convicted Kollintzas of lying to the FBI, which investigated the so-called sidewalks scandal.
Kollintzas would have been forced to serve a prison term of 11 years and four months if he hadn't fled the county days before his sentencing in February 2005.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported Swissair sold a ticket from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport to Zurich, Switzerland, to a man who presented a non-American, possibly Greek, passport to the airline in the name of Fotios Kollintzas.
Authorities believe Kollintzas, who was 62 when he bolted, fled to Greece, a nation that doesn't return American fugitives who receive Greek citizenship.
Kollintzas is a native-born American, but his parents emigrated from Greece and settled in East Chicago where they operated a family diner.
Just before his flight, he sent a letter to a federal court judge saying he couldn't face growing old or dying in prison. He conceded in the letter. "I know what I did. The concrete was poured, and I tried to make sure the people in my district got the work done at their property."
The man who fell from grace had a bachelor's degree from Indiana State University, a master's degrees in elementary education and in physical education from Indiana University and an advanced degree in administration and supervision from Indiana State University.
Kollintzas taught and also was director of athletics at East Chicago Central High School. Kollintzas also had a political career tied to Mayor Robert Pastrick, who was facing a troubling challenge in the 1999 municipal elections from Stephen R. "Bob" Stiglich.
Pastrick, Kollintzas and others in the city administration were worried enough about Stiglich to launch a giveaway of acres of free concrete to entice voters into supporting their re-election in the week leading up to that year's election.
Kollintzas, among others directed and paid contractors to pour concrete, initially just for public sidewalks and curbs, but eventually residents' private driveways, patios and walkways as well as free tree trimming on private property.
Pastrick won the spring primary that year and the concrete paving ended abruptly, sometime before individual jobs were competed, because the city had run out of cash.
Public complaints about shoddy concrete work prompted a Times investigation as well as the attention of then U.S. Attorney Joseph Van Bokkelen and his assistant David Capp. They directed a federal investigation that resulted in 2003 indictments that eventually led to the convictions of seven elected officials, a number of private contractors.
Pastrick never faced criminal charges, but a federal judge did brand Pastrick’s administration as corrupt and ordered Pastrick and former political allies to pay $108 million in damages in 2011, forcing Pastrick into bankruptcy.
The courts issued a warrant for Kollintzas' arrest 13 years ago. He remains at large.
Corruption in the Region: Peter Benjamin
Name: Peter Benjamin, formerly of Hobart
Offices held and dates: He served as Lake County assessor from 1987-94, as Lake County auditor from 1999-02 and operated a lucrative law practice on the side.
The crime: A federal grand jury indicted him in 2002 on racketeering and money laundering allegations that included: defrauding clients, lying on tax returns to cover thousands of dollars he spent on prostitutes and police officers who supplied him with drugs and bribing former Lake County Council member Troy Montgomery, of Gary.
He also lied about attending continuing education courses the state requires for lawyers, instructed a prostitute to lie to a federal grand jury about Benjamin's wrongdoing and embezzled real estate from his ex-wife's family and dissipated a small fortune, $1.2 million and a promising political and law career during his crime spree.
Benjamin pleaded guilty in 2003 to providing Montgomery with cash and dining room furniture in exchange for Montgomery using his county government connections to steer lucrative business to Benjamin's law firm. Montgomery served a one-year federal prison term for accepting the bribe.
Benjamin agreed to cooperate with federal investigators and publicly promised to bring down as many people in local government as possible, but the quality of Benjamin's cooperation and the evidence he provided the government never appeared to have much impact on future federal prosecutions.
He later told the court he met about 20 times with FBI, IRS and other law enforcement agents in his eagerness to cooperate with their investigations, but he also was suicidal, heavily medicated, "physically, emotionally and psychologically exhausted."
Benjamin publicly laid out his faults in a 2005 letter to the court.
"I clearly bribed an elected official with expectation that I would be awarded a contract and committed other unlawful acts....I broke the law and have dishonored my family, the legal profession my community and myself. As a result, I have lost everything, my former wife, my law license, my career, assets, pension and self respect. I am only a shell of the person that I once was."
He served a 27-month prison term. Court documents indicate he was working a consultant in New York in 2010. He was still paying restitution the court ordered he must to Lake County, the Internal Revenue Service and his former wife's family.
Corruption in the Region: John Buncich
Name: John Buncich
Office held: Lake County sheriff
Dates in office: 1995 to 2002 and again 2011 to Aug. 24 of this year.
The crime: Bribery, wire fraud and honest service wire fraud.
A U.S. District Court jury convicted the former sheriff Aug. 25, following a 14 day trial, of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in cash from two towing firm owners in return for giving them more lucrative town work from the sheriff's department.
Buncich said it costs about $200,000 to run for sheriff. He showered political fund-raising tickets on towing firm owners, including Scott Jurgensen, a former Merrillville Police Department officer and confidential FBI informant, and William "Willie" Szarmach, who became cooperating government witness.
They in turn plied him with cash and requests for lucrative towing assignments and they said he delivered.
Buncich denied all wrongdoing during three days of testimony, saying his conduct was unchallenged and "All candidates do this."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson, who presented evidence against Buncich replied, "It's being challenged now isn't it?"
Benson provided jurors with video and photographic evidence that Buncich used his campaign fundraising as cover for a scheme to solicit kickbacks.
Defense lawyers argued, to no avail, that Buncich has had a spotless reputation for honesty during his more than four decades as a county police officer and the government was staging bribery scenes for their undercover cameras, including one involving Buncich's former second in command, Timothy Downs delivering $7,500 to Buncich inside the sheriff's office in 2015 after Downs began cooperating with the FBI.
An FBI video surveillance recording of Buncich leaning into Szarmach's tow truck and Jurgensen giving Buncich $2,500 April 22, 2016, in the parking lot outside of Delta Restaurant in Merrillville.
An FBI video surveillance recording of Jurgensen giving Buncich $2,500 on July 21, 2016, in the parking lot outside of Delta Restaurant in Merrillville.
He awaits sentence now scheduled to take place Dec. 6.
Take a look at this gallery featuring corrupt politicians caught by former U.S. Attorney David Capp: