Jim Dey: Feds' bear hug can be impossible to resist

Jim Dey: Feds' bear hug can be impossible to resist

The three co-conspirators — Country Club Hills Police Chief Regina Evans and two so-far-unnamed associates — gathered March 6, 2013, to strategize on how best to keep federal investigators off their trail. Or so they thought.

Dummy up, they agreed, and the feds can't prove a thing. Just say you don't know anything about anything.

"If you don't remember, ain't no crime in not remembering (expletive deleted); you can call me stupid if you want to, but I just don't remember ... ," advised one.

Chief Evans, according to court records, agreed, adding that "there's nothing criminal about not remembering."

But Individual A was no longer buying what Evans and her associate, Individual B, were selling. Individual A had already repeatedly claimed — both in interviews with federal authorities and then again before a Feb. 6 grand jury meeting in Springfield — to know nothing about misuse of state grant money aimed at helping the poor improve their job skills and the result was disastrous.

"Following the testimony, the government advised Individual A that it believed Individual A had presented false testimony to the grand jury. The government urged Individual A to retain counsel," according to an investigator's affidavit filed with the court.

The message was clear — a trainload of people are going to jail. If you don't want to be on it, save yourself.

After reflecting on the issue and consulting with a lawyer, Individual A met again with investigators, admitted "knowingly and repeatedly" lying and agreed to cooperate in the probe. Over the next few months, Individual A met with Evans and Individual B to discuss the investigation, many of the conversations recorded.

The flipping of Individual A from prosecutorial foe to prosecutorial informant is just one chapter in a still-incomplete book that tells the story of Illinois' latest political scandal. It involves the theft of millions of dollars in state grant funds that were supposed to boost a variety of poverty programs.

So far, federal prosecutors have indicted 13 people, and the group includes elected and appointed government officials as well as prominent people on the state's political scene. The investigation continues, and it will be no surprise if more people are charged as government gumshoes continue to pressure lesser-involved participants to tell what they know about higher-ups.

The investigation is headed in different directions because different groups of people were allegedly involved in identical but separate criminal conduct. One part of the investigation is focused on theft of grant money awarded by the Illinois Department of Public Health; another focuses on theft of grant money awarded by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs. A third case involves education grants awarded to former Chicago Democratic state Rep. Constance Howard, who already has pleaded guilty.

The case against Evans and a series of co-defendants, who include her husband, stems from a $1.3 million grant the state's commerce department awarded to her in 2009 for a pre-apprenticeship training program aimed at increasing the number of women and minorities in the building trades.

The state's public health department awarded another $11 million in grants to a different group that pledged to use the funds to support a variety of anti-poverty and health initiatives. The public health grants were allegedly part of an insider-driven conspiracy overseen by Quinshaunta Golden, the chief of staff to then-department head Dr. Eric Whitaker. Golden, the niece of U.S. Rep. Danny Davis and a friend of President Obama, allegedly collected more than $400,000 in kickbacks from the grant awards she approved.

Prosecutors won't talk about the case beyond citing documents filed with the court. They confirm the investigation is pending. However, defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor Larry Beaumont, who represents Evans, said authorities are akin to a "rabid machine trying to scoop people up."

He said his client is at a disadvantage because she has no information to pass on that investigators don't already have.

"I think the government is trying to make her out to be something that she is not," he said, noting that former Chief Evans, a retired Chicago police lieutenant, "pled guilty, accepted responsibility and we're awaiting sentencing."

Evans has pleaded guilty in three separate cases. In June, she pleaded guilty to tax charges originally filed in northern Illinois and conspiracy, money laundering and fraud in connection with the grant. Just last week and already incarcerated, Evans pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and witness tampering in connection with her efforts to mislead investigators.

Her husband, Ronald Evans, also has pleaded guilty in connection with the conspiracy.

She is scheduled to be sentenced in October; he faces a December sentencing.

One unresolved case in the Evans conspiracy involves money laundering and false statements charges filed against Jeri L. Wright, the daughter of President Obama's former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. She faces an October trial.

So far, none of the cases has gone to trial as the multiple defendants eventually have opted to plead guilty and tell authorities what they know about the criminality of others.

As the story of Individual A demonstrates, defendants might not want to come clean with investigators. But as the evidence stacks up and the odds against them grow longer, they start looking out for No. 1.

That's why former Chief Evans was unable to persuade Individual A to continue to feign ignorance about kickbacks Individual A paid to her.

As her statement was being recorded, Evans urged her friend to hold fast.

"It's like you're the link they need. If they could get you to change what you say, say OK, I lied, OK, I gave her the money, I gave (Individual C) the money and so and so was with me, it was a kickback — then that's the case they're looking for and (it) could prove their conspiracy," Evans said.

The next big defendant, one who might be able to shed light on even bigger fish, is Golden, one of the alleged ramrods of the public health department conspiracy. Indicted Aug. 7 and arraigned Friday at the federal court in Springfield, Golden is now contemplating her future.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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