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.

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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

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.