EVANSVILLE – Federal prosecutors charged Pigeon Township trustee Mariama Wilson and two others with wire fraud Wednesday after a months-long investigation of the township’s books revealed what officials called a “kickback scheme.”
Zach Myers, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, revealed the charges against Wilson, 50, at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. Prosecutors accuse Wilson and her community affairs coordinator, William Payne, 49, of conspiring with 32-year-old contractor Terrance D. Hardiman.
Wilson and Payne each face five counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The same charges have been brought against Hardiman, who is also at risk of having laundered money.
Wilson’s alleged role in an illegal repatriation scheme stands in stark contrast to her public image as a progressive activist focused on improving the lives of Evansville’s inner-city residents. According to prosecutors, the kickback scheme siphoned thousands of dollars in funds away from a local homeless shelter.
Wilson, Payne and Hardiman deny the allegations, according to Myers.
The investigation by the district office began last summer. Attorney for the Pigeon Township Office, state Rep. Ryan Hatfield, previously told the Courier & Press that Wilson “has nothing to hide.”
Attorney Jeffrey A. Baldwin is listed in federal court records as Wilson’s defense attorney.
Between Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, police arrested all three defendants, Myers said. Wilson, Payne and Hardiman were arraigned in federal court, pleaded not guilty to their charges and were released on pretrial supervision.
What authorities claim happened
According to a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday, Wilson and Payne hired Hardiman in February 2020 to remodel the Dorothea McGregor Family Shelter and install a food pantry. In return, authorities allege, Hardiman agreed to “shunt a portion of the funds he received from the administrator’s office back to Wilson and Payne.”
Hardiman inflated the price of each invoice by about $1,000 to $2,000, the indictment said. Between February 2020 and May 2022, it reportedly gave about $38,000 to Payne and Wilson: or about $19,000 each.
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“Hardiman deposited the checks and then withdrew all or nearly all of the deposited amount in cash with the intent of returning a portion of the proceeds to Wilson and Payne,” the release said. “Hardiman placed cash in an envelope and hand-delivered the envelope to Wilson or Payne. Wilson or Payne then shared the kickback.”
Neither Hardiman nor his company, Hardiman Construction LLC, was licensed to do construction work in Indiana, according to the indictment.
On Tuesday, Myers’ office issued a news release that three Evansville township officials would soon be charged, sending police into contact with Payne, Wilson and Hardiman before news of the pending charges became public knowledge.
Their arrest follows a months-long FBI investigation into the township office’s financial records. The investigation became public knowledge in July 2022, when FBI agents along with Indiana State Board of Accounts auditors showed up at the township’s Eighth Street offices.
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Wilson’s charge, in particular, could resonate widely in the broader Evansville community, given her dual role as an elected official and well-known activist. She is a Democrat who unseated longtime trustee Mary Hart in the 2018 primary, then ran unopposed in the 2018 and 2022 general elections.
Vanderburgh County Sheriff Noah Robinson described the alleged kickback scheme as “a slap in the face to the community we live in.”
Myers characterized Wilson’s actions as a betrayal of public trust: “Inflated invoices and kickbacks rob taxpayers of their hard-earned money and damage the trust citizens are entitled to have in their government.”
If convicted, Wilson, Payne and Hardiman face up to 20 years in federal prison and up to three years of supervised release.
Lawyer previously said Wilson had ‘nothing to hide’
When FBI agents first showed up at the Pigeon Township offices on July 8, they released few details about what the investigation entailed, going so far as to say it centered around “expense irregularities” on the township’s books.
Hatfield, who serves as attorney for the Pigeon Township Trustee’s Office, said the State Board of Accounts had informed Wilson it planned to conduct a routine audit, but instead showed up with investigators.
At the time, Hatfield said, “we expect authorities will find no wrongdoing.”
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And while Wilson and her staff could have invoked their right to counsel or refuse to talk, Hatfield said in July that they submitted to interviews and provided documents to investigators without a lawyer present.
“We believe, based on the interviews volunteered by the curator’s staff, that this was a fishing expedition started by a disgruntled former employee.”
Hatfield declined to name the former employee or explain what their alleged grievance may have been. Hatfield did not respond to an additional request for comment Wednesday afternoon.
Trustee had won praise for gun violence work
In addition to Wilson’s role as an elected official, she also leads the Evansville chapter of Mothers Against Senseless Killing, an advocacy group that aims to prevent gun violence by building stronger communities.
Members hold vigils for victims of gun violence, hold block parties and patrol their neighborhoods with evening walks.
Wilson has been a prominent voice in Evansville for years, but her role as an activist became even more personal when her son was seriously injured in a shooting while walking home in 2020.
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Prior to the announcement of her indictment, Wilson was scheduled to participate in a sit-out event for Mothers Against Senseless Killings, which was scheduled to run from 6:30 to 8 p.m., according to the group’s Facebook page.
Among those arrested on Tuesday, Wilson is not alone in his activism. Payne, a local pastor, is also known for his social justice work and efforts to improve blighted Evansville neighborhoods.
Payne was one of the first advocates to help tenants of Woodland Park Apartments, a South Side complex plagued by problems and alleged mismanagement. In 2020, Payne drafted a petition calling on the city to hold Woodland management accountable for what he described as unsafe living conditions. The petition received more than 500 signatures.
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In 2019, Payne created an online Facebook fundraiser – The Community Bond Project – to help raise bond money for people arrested for non-violent crimes. He was also active with the Social Justice Network and has advocated for lower utility bills and spoken out about racial injustice more broadly.
Contractor previously accused of fraud
Earlier this year, law enforcement agencies in Vanderburgh and Gibson counties accused Hardiman of defrauding customers who paid tens of thousands of dollars for contractor work.
In January, the Vanderburgh County Prosecutor’s Office charged Hardiman with fraud resulting in a loss between $750 and $50,000, a Level 6 felony, in addition to theft and felony charges.
Hardiman was arrested and subsequently released from the Vanderburgh County Jail after posting a $500 cash bond. A jury trial in the case is scheduled to begin on September 27.
And in early February, Gibson County prosecutors charged Hardiman with one count of theft of property valued between $750 and $50,000. A trial date has not yet been set, according to court records.
Where the case goes from here
When Wilson appeared for the first time, she waived her right to have her charge formally read in court. Magistrate Judge Matthew P. Brookman ordered Wilson released under a list of conditions pending her sentencing.
The court ordered Wilson to appear in federal court on July 10 at 9:00 a.m
In the meantime, Wilson must surrender her passport to the US Probation Office and cannot leave the Southern District of Indiana unless she secures approval from her supervisor, according to a judge’s order.
Wilson, Payne and Hardiman are barred from contacting each other under the terms of their release.
State law allows for the removal of a township trustee, although the process is cumbersome and will require multiple hearings, township board approval and public meetings.
Courier & Press reporter Tom Langhorne contributed reporting to this article. Houston Harwood can be reached at email@example.com