Former top official of Bloomfield Township company accused of creating climate of fear for kickbacks

John Hamilton sentenced to 2 years in prison, ordered to pay $250,000

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. - The former top elected official of a union headquartered in Bloomfield Township was sentenced to two years in prison for conspiring to commit extortion, U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider announced.

John Hamilton, 63, of Ocala, Florida, is accused of conspiring with at least two other former top officials at Operating Engineers Local 324 to impose a climate of fear by coercing business agents and other employees to pay him kickbacks of more than $5,000 from their salaries per year.

The kickbacks were put into what was called the Team Hamilton Slate Fund, federal officials said.

"This union official created a climate of fear of retaliation against the hardworking men and women of the union, all for his personal gain," Schneider said. "The court’s sentence today sends a strong message that union officials who abuse their positions of trust to personally profit will face significant punishment."

The slate fund was supposed to be used for union election campaign expenses, but Hamilton used a significant amount of the money for his own personal benefit, officials said.

Hamilton is accused of threatening union employees with termination if they complained about the payments to his fund. In 2010, Hamilton fired a business agent who complained about making the payment.

"Conduct of this sort from individuals, such as Mr. Hamilton, who exercise control over union and employee benefit assets, must be eradicated," said L. Joe Rivers, regional director for the Cincinnati Regional Office of the Labor Department’s Employee Benefits Security Administration.

Officials said Hamilton used some of the money to pay for meals, liquor and a $5,000 wedding present to his daughter.

After losing re-election in an August 2012 membership vote, Hamilton pocketed $71,000 from the slate fund and distributed more than $35,000 each to Steven Minella and David Hart, officials said.

Hamilton was sentenced to 24 months in prison and ordered to pay $250,000 in restitution to the victims of the crime.

"Protecting financial integrity and combating corruption in labor unions is a very high priority for OLMS," said Ian Burg, director of the Office of Labor-Management Standards at the Detroit-Milwaukee District Office. "This case sends a clear message that OLMS will fully investigate and seek justice when anyone attempts to use their union position for personal financial gain."

"Today’s sentencing of John Hamilton for running an extortion scheme forcing financial contributions from union members, leveraged and enforced with bullying tactics, for his own personal benefit illustrates our continued commitment to hold those chosen by members to represent them accountable for violating their trust," said Jeffery E. Peterson, acting special agent in charge, Detroit Division of the FBI.

In 2015, Minella, the former Local 324 president, and Hart, the former Local 324 financial secretary, both pleaded guilty to felonies for helping to conceal Hamilton's scheme.

Hart is scheduled to be sentenced March 27, and Minella is scheduled to be sentenced April 11.

Local 324 represents heavy equipment and crane operators throughout Michigan. Hamilton served as the business manager of the union, its top elected official, from 2003 through 2012.

The union is headquartered in Bloomfield Township.

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