One of President Barack’s Obama’s closest friends, Dr. Eric E. Whitaker, faced a barrage of questions — about his now-convicted former chief of staff, his brother and his ties to an indicted Chicago businessman — during an unusual court hearing this week that ended with a federal judge declaring Whitaker a “hostile witness” in a grant-fraud trial.
A transcript of that proceeding, obtained Friday by the Chicago Sun-Times, shows how testy things got — with Whitaker at one point suggesting that racial bias played a role in grant-scam cases brought against mostly African-American defendants by the Justice Department’s Central District of Illinois in Springfield.
“I just read the papers and see, you know, what — the complexion of the folks who are written about and who I know to be charged, and that concerns me,” Whitaker told Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy A. Bass at the hearing Monday.
“Do you support the principle of investigation and ferreting out of wrongdoing and fraud within state government, particularly state government that you were a part of?” Bass then asked Whitaker, who oversaw the awarding of numerous grants when he headed the Illinois Department of Public Health between 2003 and 2007 under then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
“Without a doubt,” Whitaker replied. “What I don’t support is the selective investigation.”
After the questioning outside the presence of jurors, Bass cited what he said were Whitaker’s “baseless accusations” in deciding not to call him as a witness at the ongoing trial of Chicago businessman Leon Dingle Jr., 77, and his wife Karin Dingle, 75, who are accused of stealing more than $3 million in grant funds awarded by the state health agency.
The grant money — awarded under Whitaker and his successor, Dr. Damon Arnold — was supposed to go toward health-related programs. The Dingles are accused of illegally spending large sums of it on vacation homes, high-priced cars and other luxury items. Closing arguments are expected early next week.
Here are excerpts of Whitaker’s exchanges with Bass, the prosecutor who grilled him for more than two hours. A full transcript is included at the end.
Whitaker’s background: ‘Failed academic’
Q. (Bass) Dr. Whitaker . . . you mentioned that you attended Harvard, is that right?
A. (Whitaker) I did.
Q. And you have a fairly extensive professional background as a medical doctor practicing in the Chicago area, is that right?
A. I think it’s fair. I think some people would like my background.
Q. And you’ve received a number of awards and published a number of articles . . .
A. Yeah. I would say I probably should have published more. I actually — you know, I call myself a failed academic because I like actually doing things as opposed to writing about doing things. You know, I’ve — you know, in terms of awards, you know, I probably have received three dozen in my life or more. I’ve gotten tons of awards.
Whitaker’s ties to Dingle: ‘I certainly saw him in our office many times’
Q. Do you have a personal or business or any other type of relationship with Dr. Dingle?
A. You know, I don’t think I’ve talked to Dr. Dingle in two or three years or so. . . .
Q. When’s the last time that you talked to him?
A. . . . It was sometime around the time he got indicted, but I’m not sure the exact date or time of that.
Q. And did — did you call him or did he call you?
A. No, I — I called him just to see how he was doing.
Q. And was anyone with you when that occurred?
A. Quin Golden was. [Golden is Whitaker’s former chief of staff at the state health department. She has pleaded guilty to stealing $400,000 in taxpayer money in a scheme with Roxanne B. Jackson, a former health department human resources director who also has pleaded guilty.]
Q. Was that — where were you when that conversation occurred?
A. We were in a car on a speakerphone. . . .
Q. What was the purpose of your phone call?
A. Well, it’s been my experience that people like myself who end up in the paper that there’s a great deal of silence around them. And I’ve made it a practice to — if I know them, I call people and just, you know, give them a good word. Not knowing, you know, if they’re — you know, have problems or not, I just like to be supportive of people in that situation because I’ve been in that situation myself. . . .
Q. Did you have a close relationship with Dr. Dingle?
A. How do you define close?
Q. That you met with him regularly . . .
A. Well, you know, the African-American community in Chicago is small. We tend to go to certain places as groups. I certainly saw him in our office many times. You know, if — I don’t know if some of those would be called meetings, but, you know, he certainly was around. . . . Dr. Dingle was the convener for the health-care panel of Operation PUSH. . . . One of the things I hated about how Dr. Dingle scheduled things was he would have seven, eight people on a panel, so that I barely got air time. . . .
Q. Did Dr. Dingle also call you regularly? . . .
A. I’m sure I did.
Whitaker’s relationship with Golden: ‘She called me crying.’
Q. And during that (Dec. 7, 2012) interview, the government asked you about your relationship with Ms. Golden, is that right?
A. That’s correct.
Q. To which you refused to answer, is that right?
A. Yes. . . . Actually, to be accurate, my attorney suggested that we not delve into private areas because I was told when I came in to the hearing room that I was going to be a potential witness and not a target, but the questions were target-ish. . . .
Q. And you’re aware now that — you’re aware now that there’s a statute of limitations on conduct that occurred more than five years ago. Are you aware of that?
A. You just told me that just today. I mean, frankly, my attorney and I, you know, given that I have not done wrongdoing and I don’t feel I’ve done any wrong, I’ve never actually had a discussion about my — my exposure to criminal prosecution except about perjury or lying to a federal — a federal official or something like that. . . .
Q. And was that the first time that you — you’ve already said that’s the first time you met with the government and the only time prior to this morning, is that right?
A. That’s correct.
Q. And in that meeting in December of 2012 did the government ask you to do anything other than tell the truth?
A. And I answered every single question but that question.
Q. And during the time that you were the director and Ms. Golden was your chief of staff, not — I don’t intend to go into the details, but your relationship with Ms. — your relationship with Ms. Golden was more than professional, is that right?
A. That’s fair to say. . . .
Q. And she joined you at the University of Chicago several months after you went there in the latter part of 2007. . . .
A. I think that’s right, yeah.
Q. And your relationship with Ms. Golden and your knowledge of her continued in 2008, 2009, and up to the present, is that right?
A. You know, Quin is — she was — is a good friend of mine.
Q. And during that entire time period from 2003 to 2012 when you met — that nine-year time period when you met with the government the first time, she never mentioned anything to you at all about the bribes or kickbacks that she was taking from Roxanne Jackson with money distributed to Leon Dingle?
A. You know, as I told you this morning, I think that the first time she said something to me about it was either — I believe it was the day or — of the indictment coming out, and she called me crying to tell me that, you know, she had done something wrong and that, you know, there was going to be an indictment.
Whitaker’s brother’s business: ‘I have no recollection’
Q. Did you ever solicit or attempt to get anything of value for your brother Larry from Dr. Dingle?
A. You informed me of something this morning that I have no recollection of.
Q. Do you have any recollection of attempting to help your brother Larry in his printing business by Dr. Dingle?
A. I do not. . . .
Q. Did you recall that [in August 2003] that you advised your brother Larry that Tony suggested that you give [former Illinois Department of Central Management Services director] Mike Rumman a call, that you hoped he got a chance to meet with Mr. Rumman in the future? Do you see this e-mail from yourself to —
A. I do.
Q. — Larry Whitaker?
A. I do. . . .
Q. And do you recall that Larry responded that he would call Mr. Rumman that day? Do you see that?
Q. Do you recall that Larry sought assistance from Milan Petrovic [a lobbyist who was close to Blagojevich] in December of ’03 regarding his printing company and cc’ing you on that e-mail? Do you see that?
A. I do.
Q. Do you recall Larry asking you for Dr. Dingle’s contact information in April of 2005?
A. I do not.
Q. You don’t recall this e-mail?
A. I do not. . . .
Q. And did Larry follow up with you in May of 2005 . . . indicating that he hadn’t heard from Dr. Dingle and asking again what his contact information was? Do you see that?
A. I do. I don’t recall it.
Q. You don’t recall it?
A. I do not.
Q. And then the next day . . . do you recall Mr. Larry Whitaker indicating to you that he hadn’t heard from Dingle, asking for the contact info, to which you respond with Dr. Dingle’s cell phone number and saying that you touched bases with Vic and trying to have dinner tonight. Do you see that?
A. I’m reading it here but don’t recall this.
Q. Is that [former Blagojevich aide] Victor Roberson?
A. I can’t tell you because I don’t remember what this is.
Q. Who else would you be — what other Vic would there have been that you would have referred Larry Whitaker to other than —
A. We have a common friend called Vic. I don’t know his last name. There’s Victor Golden [Quin Golden’s husband, an Illinois Lottery employee who briefly ran a business with Whitaker’s wife, Dr. Cheryl Whitaker]. You know, there’s a number of Vics. But I don’t know who he — do you have an e-mail with me writing Victor? I actually don’t know who — I don’t recall this, first of all, and I don’t know who Vic is.
Q. In the last e-mail on this page, also on the 19th, Larry writes to you indicating that he’d just talked to ‘DD’ indicating that he was setting Larry up with the compliance lady at Cook County on Monday and then they’re going to U of I and Chicago State after that, and then Larry mentions Vic again, tell Vic to kick me some low-dollar, no-bid stuff just to keep me open for now. Do you recall that e-mail?
A. I do not.
Q. Who — would there have been another Vic besides Victor Roberson that could have kicked Larry Whitaker some low-dollar, no-bid stuff?
A. I can’t answer that for you.
Q. Do you have any recollection of this at all?
A. I have no recollection of this whatsoever. . . .
Q. Did you assist your brother Larry in getting any — doing any business with Dr. Dingle?
A. I don’t recall this at all.
Whitaker to Bass: ‘Race, frankly’
Q. [Y]ou’re aware that one of the issues that the judge has to decide today is whether or not you’re a hostile witness?
Q. Are you a hostile witness?
A. As I think I told you this morning, I’m not hostile. I’m angry but not hostile.
Q. Well, what’s the difference . . .
A. I would say that I will be objective and tell the court what — answer whatever questions, but personally I’m, you know, upset about this process and how I’ve been made to look like I’m on trial. So I don’t — you know, I will answer any question to the extent I can. I’m not biased or prejudiced against the government and will answer questions, as I did this morning for two hours. . . .
Q. And did you today . . . accuse the government of being politically and racially motivated?
A. You know, I have concerns about that and I mentioned that to you earlier today.
Q. And what basis do you have to make that accusation?
A. You know, I have to say, you know, as I look at the agency I oversaw that had up to $450 million a year and a lot of the activity that you’ve dealt with was for a $10 million piece of the agency, there — you know, almost everyone who I’ve seen that’s — that’s been convicted or scrutinized has been African American. And, you know, I have concerns about that, and that’s what I mentioned to you.
Q. And is that the basis for your accusation against the government because the defendants charged — previously charged have been African-Americans? Is that your only basis?
A. I mean, again, there’s — we outsourced to a lot of different people in my agency. There’s one area of the agency where the person who headed it left the agency, became a lobbyist, and they now head the group that was outsourced to. They have not been investigated in the same way. The only difference between these two entities is race, frankly. And the amount of money for that group was a lot larger. So, you know, so when I sit back and knowing all that I know — and there’s a lot that I’ve forgotten — you know, it raises questions for me.
Q. Dr. Whitaker, there have been a number of people charged in connection with the Blagojevich administration, many of whom are not African-American, isn’t that right?
A. I don’t know about the Southern District. You know, I’m — or, you know, what district — I know certainly in Chicago they have.
Q. Governor Blagojevich, Lon Monk, Tony Rezko. . . . Isn’t that the case, Dr. Whitaker?
A. I think every person you mentioned was tried up in Chicago. Am I incorrect on that?
Q. Are you aware of other people that have been charged in connection with state government here in the Central District of Illinois?
A. I’m not. I just read the papers and see, you know, what — the complexion of the folks who are written about and who I know to be charged, and that concerns me.
Q. Do you support the principle of investigation and ferreting out of wrongdoing and fraud within state government, particularly state government that you were a part of?
A. Without a doubt. What I don’t support is the selective investigation.
Bass to Whitaker: ‘Could all of this been avoided?’
Q. [H]as the government either this morning or two years ago asked you to do anything other than tell the truth?
A. That’s all I’ve done.
Q. And could all of this been avoided — could all of this been avoided, this hearing, the motion, had you agreed to meet with the government when we first asked you to privately?
A. You know, I’ve asked myself that question, and I, frankly, came to the conclusion no. So . . .
Q. What basis do you have to believe that?
A. It’s a belief. So, it’s — you know, it’s not — you know, it’s not grounded in any fact. It’s a belief.
Bass: Thank you, Dr. Whitaker. That’s all the questions I have, your honor.
Whitaker: Thank you very much for the opportunity to present.