Jim Dey: It's scoundrel time again in Land of Lincoln
Don't look now, but here we go again.
It's been running below the radar screen for months now, but Illinois taxpayers are about to be treated to another major political scandal featuring prominent names, elected officials, and, of course, grotesque abuse of taxpayer dollars.
Federal prosecutors in Springfield this week indicted the 13th defendant in the long-running probe, Quinshaunta Golden, a former chief of staff to Dr. Eric E. Whitaker, a one-time director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Whitaker is a close personal friend and sometime golfing partner of President Barack Obama. Authorities have declined to comment on any role that Whitaker may have played in a scheme designed to award grant funds to various groups only to have the grant money spent for improper purposes.
U.S. Attorney James Lewis this week repeatedly declined to discuss Whitaker's role, if any, in the probe.
"There is nothing in the materials you have today that leads toward an answer to that question," he said.
Whitaker subsequently issued a statement denying any involvement in the misconduct allegedly orchestrated by his former chief of staff.
"I have been fully cooperating with the investigation into these matters," he said.
Golden and Whitaker, however, have been extremely close associates over the years. When he left the state's public health department in 2007 to go to work for the University of Chicago, she later joined him there.
Golden was charged this week with bribery and taking kickbacks worth $433,000, mail fraud and obstruction of justice for allegedly trying to derail the investigation.
Like others involved in the case, Golden is not as well known for her own sake as for her personal political connections. She is the niece of prominent Chicago U.S. Rep. Danny Davis.
Another co-defendant, 47-year-old Jeri L. Wright, is the daughter of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, President Obama's controversial race-baiting Chicago minister. She's been charged with money laundering and making false statements to both federal investigators and a federal grand jury and faces a tentative trial date of Oct. 16.
Another defendant, former state Rep. Connie Howard, waived indictment and pleaded guilty July 24 at the federal courthouse in Springfield to mail fraud for misusing grant money between 2003 and 2007. The 70-year-old Howard apparently is cooperating with investigators, and her negotiated guilty plea calls for a Nov. 21 sentencing hearing in which she is expected to be sentenced to six months in prison and six months in home detention.
Not all of the grant fraud schemes are directly related, although they all follow the same general pattern and involve big money. They involve grants awarded by the state's public health department as well as the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
In a statement issued by the U.S attorney's office, authorities said "charges against these 13 defendants collectively allege the misuse of more than $16 million in taxpayers' money." Authorities said the grants were intended to address a variety of social welfare projects including job training, student assistance, health care and HIV prevention.
What's ironic about the charges is that they involve individuals who falsely portrayed themselves as advocates for the poor and unfortunate and allegedly used that cover to secure and then steal grant funds.
Golden's case is one alleged example. As chief of staff in the public health department, she controlled grant awards. She awarded $11 million to three organizations controlled by Leon Dingle Jr. and his family. Authorities allege that Golden arranged for Individual A, anonymous in the indictment but identified in news reports as Roxanne Bryant Jackson, a lawyer in public health's human resources department, to be a paid consultant for Dingle.
Dingle then kicked back to Individual A $772,500 from the grant funds, and Individual A passed roughly half of that sum, $323,500, to Golden.
Dingle, his wife and two associates were indicted in October 2012, and they are scheduled to go to trial in December.
Prosecutors alleged that Golden ran a similar scheme with Individual A involving a security firm unidentified in the indictment, later identified in news accounts as V.I.P. Security & Detective Service. The security firm received grant money to conduct background checks on individuals seeking admission to nursing homes. Individual A allegedly collected $485,000 between 2006 and 2009 from the security firm, paying Golden $109,500. The Chicago Tribune identified Bennie Bryant III as the owner of the security firm, and the brother of Individual A, Roxanne Bryant Jackson.
Authorities charged Golden with obstructing the investigation for allegedly trying to persuade Individual A to lie to investigators when they came to interview her. Individual A has not yet been charged in the case, most probably because she is cooperating with investigators.
Another scheme uncovered in the investigation involves Regina Evans, the former police chief of Country Club Hills, and her husband, Ronald Evans Jr., the inspector general in his wife's police department. They allegedly created various for-profit and not-for-profit agencies, sought grant money to finance various good works and then used the money for personal spending and business activities.
One scheme involved a $1.2 million grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for job and education training between 2009 and 2011. Authorities said that "little, if any, of the training proposed" in the "We Are Our Brother's Keeper" grant agreement was ever completed. Regina Evans has pleaded guilty to money laundering and wire fraud charges in connection with the grant and is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 15. She also is scheduled to go to trial next month on charges of obstruction of justice, witness tampering and conspiracy.
Her husband, Ronald Evans, pleaded guilty Aug. 1, and he is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 2.
Nothing in the indictment indicates how such vast sums of money could be dispensed by state agencies with so little follow-up over how the funds were spent.
In just one case — the Dingle family — authorities said the money was spent on sports tickets, yachting club expenses, vacation homes, a Chicago condominium and Mercedes-Benz automobiles.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 351-5369.