Jim Dey: Theft cases represent public's worst nightmare
A long-running federal investigation into the theft of state grant funds already has claimed several scalps.
But prosecutors are scheduled in March and April to take their cases against remaining defendants to trial at the U.S. Courthouse in Springfield. While relatively low-key in terms of publicity, the prosecutions are significant politically because the defendants are drawn from the seamy underbelly of state and Chicago politics. One person charged in the case is a former Chicago state legislator, while others held positions in state government and law enforcement or are closely related to prominent players on the state's political stage.
Jeri Wright, daughter of President Barack Obama's minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is scheduled to go to trial March 4 before U.S. Judge Sue Myerscough. Represented by Urbana's John Taylor, an assistant federal public defender, Wright is charged with money laundering, wire fraud, lying to a federal grand jury and making false statements to federal investigators.
Wright's co-defendants have pleaded guilty and could be called as witnesses to testify against her.
A second case involves four defendants who are accused of having conspired with a high-ranking official at the Illinois Department of Public Health to misappropriate $13 million in state grant money. U.S. Judge Richard Mills will preside over the scheduled April 1 trial of co-defendants Leon Dingle Jr., Karin Dingle, Jacquelyn Kilpatrick and Edmond Clemons.
All told, 13 defendants have been charged in connection with separate, but similar, criminal schemes involving $16 million in taxpayer money.
Because these cases involve either internal corruption or lax oversight, they represent the public's worst nightmare of how their tax dollars are handled. In each of the cases, grant applicants operated under the false veneer of providing assistance to the poor.
The $1.25 million grant application in the Wright case "was a complete fraud from the outset," according to federal prosecutors.
Wright allegedly played a lesser role in the scheme concocted by a close friend, veteran police officer Regina Evans.
A retired Chicago police officer and the chief of police in Country Club Hills, Evans conspired with her husband, Ronald, to obtain grant funding from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to finance job training and educational programs for the underprivileged. Instead, they used the money on personal expenses, including the payment of business debts. Authorities recovered only about $300,000 of the original $1.25 million.
Evans has pleaded guilty to 16 felony offenses, and prosecutors are recommending a 10-year prison sentence. Part of the reason for the harsh recommendation is that even though Evans has pleaded guilty to all charges, she has not been forthcoming about what she did and with whom.
That led to a comic scene in federal court when Evans pleaded guilty but refused to acknowledge that one of her co-conspirators was her husband, Ronald. He also has pleaded guilty.
"When (Judge Myerscough) advised defendant Evans that it could not accept a guilty plea without an admission to the charged conspiracy, (Evans' lawyer) advised (Myerscough) that (Evans) would admit to conspiring with Ronald Evans, but that she was not admitting that he conspired with her," according to court documents.
One of Wright's alleged roles in the conspiracy was to accept at least two checks written to her from grant funds by Evans — one for $11,935 and the other for $7,955 — and cash them. Wright then allegedly would return most of the money to Evans.
When interviewed by federal agents, Wright insisted she deposited the checks in her own account.
"When agents explained to (Wright) that (bank records) revealed that the funds were deposited into Evans' personal account, (Wright) stated she was fairly sure that she used the funds to pay her bills but would check her records," according to court documents.
Despite bank records showing otherwise, Wright stuck to her story in later testimony before a federal grand jury, and that testimony provides the basis for the perjury charges.
The second case scheduled to go to trial — the Dingles and two co-defendants — involves alleged corruption at the highest levels of state government.
They allegedly conspired with Quinshaunta Golden, the chief of staff to the state's public health department director, to receive $13 million in grant money, a substantial portion of which ($433,000) was returned to Golden in kickbacks. Golden, who is the niece of U.S. Rep. Danny Davis of Chicago, is charged with bribery, mail fraud and obstructing a federal investigation.
Prosecutors have alleged she used her high positions in the public health department to oversee grants aimed at providing low-income individuals with access to a variety of health-related programs.
There is no way to determine if these scheduled trials will go forth with some or all of the defendants. It's common in cases like these for defendants who face a high probability of conviction to agree to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors.
Given the connection some of these defendants have, it's not beyond the realm of reason that they could provide information implicating current defendants or individuals who have not yet been charged.
Federal prosecutors, however, have been circumspect in their statement about the case, refusing to acknowledge any details not outlined in court documents. They continued that practice last week.
Speaking for U.S. Attorney James Lewis, office spokeswoman Sharon Paul said "our office would have no comment on the cases as they are pending before the court, and of course, we cannot confirm or deny an investigation."
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or at 217-351-5369.