A group of longtime East St. Louis residents, most of them senior citizens, have united in their message to city and county leaders: They’re tired of the corruption.
Some 75 to 125 citizens strong, they network through local churches and other community groups and communicate in an unofficial capacity.
Their immediate efforts in the push for justice are focused on June Hamilton-Dean, the former city council member and community development director who in October was found guilty of felony counts of forgery and public misconduct. She’ll be sentenced in a St. Clair County courtroom on Dec. 17.
The group launched a letter-writing campaign to Judge John O'Gara asking him to punish her with the maximum sentence allowed by law.
“June Hamilton-Dean really has done a disservice to the city and the citizens of East St. Louis,” said Marion Moffitt, 80, who organized the campaign. “People tasked her with taking care of the people’s business, and she has not served the people well. She should get the maximum sentence allowed under the law.”
It was Hamilton-Dean’s brother, Oliver Hamilton, who was sentenced to 60 months in prison for using taxpayer funds to make personal purchases that included vacations, gifts, construction materials and gasoline while he was East St. Louis Township supervisor. Hamilton-Dean initially faced related charges of wire fraud, but they were dropped and her brother’s sentence was reduced to 30 months.
June Hamilton-Dean's employment with the city was terminated following her conviction.
In the meantime, however, she is seeking another public office in the March 2020 primary election.
Participants in the citizens’ effort say that, for years, East St. Louis has been run by corrupt leaders who are more interested in their “individual greed” than in serving their duty to the community.
Moffitt doesn’t want Hamilton have that chance again.
“I want her to have a Christmas present wrapped in bows going to the state prison,” Moffitt said.
Repeated attempts to reach Hamilton for comment have been unsuccessful.
Some of those writing letters expressed similar views last week when they spoke with the Belleville News-Democrat, but did not want to be quoted on the record for fear of political retaliation.
Moffitt doesn’t share that concern. Neither does former city employee Percy Harris. Both lashed out at the city on behalf of her angry friends and neighbors for allowing Mario Fennoy to get away with stealing overtime money meant to help make the streets safer.
Last month, the former East St. Louis police sergeant pleaded guilty in a federal court to collecting thousands in overtime pay the U.S. Attorney’s Office said he didn’t earn. Instead of responding to dispatch calls, prosecutors said, he retreated to an apartment in East St. Louis to nap and watch television. He’ll be sentenced in February. Through his attorney, Talmage Newton, Fennoy said he regrets that his crime will tarnish his lengthy service record.
“Mario has accepted responsibility for his actions,” Newton said. “He has spent his life dedicated to public service to his country and community, first with the United States Army, and for the last 24 years to the city of East St. Louis.
“Mario regrets this betrayal of the public trust. He apologizes to the East St. Louis citizens and police department for his conduct.”
Given the historical corruption in East St. Louis, Moffitt said apologies aren’t enough. She said she wants Fennoy punished in a way that will serve as a warning to others tempted to seek profit from the public’s trust.
"A slap on the wrist will not send a strong message," Moffitt said. “We feel betrayed, helpless and like no one is manning the kitchen. Politicians and other city elders are not focused on making the city a pace where the residents feel safe, have stores to stop at, medical centers they are comfortable going to and other things that other cities enjoy daily.”
Concerned residents say the police chief and other city administration officials should be able to monitor employees while they’re on the clock and track their work and whereabouts.
“We need police on the street to make it safe for the people,” Moffitt said.
Neither Police Chief Kendall Perry nor East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III responded to requests for comment. Both assumed their current positions after the complaints were filed against Fennoy. City Manager Brooke Smith, who was hired after Eastern took office, also didn’t want to comment.
In June, Christopher Coleman, former executive director of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $250,000 from the nonprofit family support agency that once served his own family as he was growing up. Two others have since been indicted on related charges of self-dealing and corruption.
Some of the East St. Louis residents wondered aloud how Coleman, and others in leadership positions, could steal from “the poorest of the poor.”
Harris and Moffitt both said those public officials who break the law should be punished and shouldn’t be allowed to hold public office again.
“When you steal from a community who doesn’t have anything, it’s like somebody taking all of your clothes,” Harris said. “Anybody who breaks the law should go to jail to pay for their crime.”
Harris, who was born and raised in East St. Louis, said if the judge doesn’t sentence Hamilton to the maximum, “you’re kinda letting people know it’s OK.”
“East St. Louis has been through enough over the last 48 years,” he said. “It’s time for things to be done right.”
Carolyn P. Smith is a reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
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