Testimony at trial for Calumet Township employees shows campaigning became routine part of government work

Testimony Friday in the federal corruption cases against two former Calumet Township employees centered on how campaign operations became inseparable from regular government functions.

The trial for Ethel Shelton and Alex Wheeler wrapped its first week Friday as prosecutors sought to show how campaign work bled into the normal routine for Calumet Township employees, but defense attorneys aimed to distinguish the two functions. Shelton and Wheeler were charged alongside former Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin and Steven Hunter for using their public offices to run political campaigns.

Lamar Taylor, a former deputy director of the township’s multipurpose center and a co-manager of Elgin’s campaign, said Elgin would call meetings for her deputies on township business and politics often were part of the discussion.

“They were not political meetings, per se,” Taylor said.

As one of Elgin’s three annual fundraisers approached, Taylor said those events would be discussed at the deputy meetings.

Fundraiser tickets were distributed to employees in envelopes with an individual’s name on it, according to Taylor, and money for those tickets was either returned to a supervisor or directly to the trustee’s office.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Abizer Zanzi asked to whom Taylor delivered the money for the tickets.

“Mainly Mrs. Shelton,” Taylor said.

At one meeting, Taylor said Elgin made a statement that buying fundraising tickets was mandatory.

“I know that that was not right,” Taylor said. “I indicated to the trustee I didn’t think that term should be used.”

Shelton and Wheeler were named in a multi-count indictment in December 2014 along with Elgin and Hunter, alleging the four committed conspiracy to defraud; wire fraud; conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud; honest service wire fraud; and conspiracy to commit extortion.

The charges say the four used township employees and offices to run political campaigns, according to court documents.

Elgin had additional charges of attempted extortion; false statement to an agency of the United States; and two counts failure to file a tax return.

In 2017, Elgin pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud; two counts of wire fraud; and willful failure to file a tax return, according to court documents, and Hunter pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and two counts of wire fraud.

Elgin and Hunter are set for sentencing on May.

Taylor said he was at a meeting where Wheeler made comments that more consequences were needed if employees would buy the tickets.

Defense attorney Andrea Gambino asked if Taylor knew of any case when an employee was penalized for not buying fundraiser tickets.

“I’m not aware of anybody,” Taylor said.

Zanzi asked if Taylor had any involvement with laying off or penalizing employees.

“No,” Taylor said.

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