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Holder: race wasn’t a factor in case involving Obama’s pal

Federal investigators who pursued fraud charges against a Chicago couple were not biased against African-Americans, Attorney General Eric Holder told me Friday as he for the first time addressed allegations made last week by President Barack Obama’s friend Eric Whitaker.

“I have no evidence that there’s a basis to that claim,” Holder told me.

Whitaker’s claim of racial bias was jarring as I read the stories from my colleague, Chris Fusco, who covered the federal case involving Whitaker in Springfield about no-bid contracts and schemes to siphon state money for personal use. Whitaker was not accused of any wrong-doing but figured as a witness in the case against Leon Dingle Jr., 77, and Dingle’s wife Karin Dingle, 75.

Whitaker was taking aim at a Justice Department led for the first time by an African-American – Holder – in the administration of his pal, the first African-American president.

Whitaker and his wife, Cheryl, are not only friends of Obama and first lady Michelle, but they also know Holder and his wife, Sharon Malone.

Holder and the Whitakers were among the guests at Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday party at the White House in January. And in June, 2012, they, along with the First Couple, were all at the wedding of the daughter of White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, in the yard of Jarrett’s mother’s Kenwood home.

Holder told me he kept a distance from the case and knew about developments mainly though news reports. “I didn’t want to be involved or show any kind of particular interest in the case from me or anybody in Washington,” he said.

The Attorney General traveled to Chicago on Friday to discuss what law enforcement can do build trust in black neighborhoods in the wake of protests about police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson and Staten Island.

As we talked at the Dirksen Federal Building in the Loop, I asked Holder to speak to Whitaker’s race-based prosecution assertion.

At a court hearing last week, Whitaker said that when it came to the criminal investigation of state grants during his time as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, “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.”

Of the 10 people charged in this particular probe, nine are African-American. Fusco reported that seven of the 10 have pleaded guilty to crimes including bribery and theft.

On Tuesday federal prosecutors declined to call Whitaker as a witness, citing his “baseless accusations.”

Holder told me, “I got to say I’m not totally familiar with the underlying facts of that case. My knowledge of it really is based only on what I’ve seen in the newspapers.

“On the other hand, I am familiar with the prosecutors who brought those cases, and I’m pretty confident that the bringing of those cases, the investigation of those cases, was done on a non-race based basis.”

I asked Holder if the Justice Department in Washington had any say in whether Whitaker was called as a witness.

Holder said no.

“To be honest with you, the only knowledge I have of the case is really kind of what I read in the clips — we get clips every morning,” he said.

“And I didn’t want to be involved in or show any kind of particular interest in the case from me or anybody in Washington.

But what about the appearance of the president’s friend complaining about a race-based Justice Department investigation?

Holder said, ““Well, again, I’m not familiar with all of what generated in Eric that desire to express himself in the way that he did.

“All I’ll say is with regard to the people who are the U.S. Attorneys who I know from Illinois who are involved in those matters — I have confidence in their abilities to dispense justice in a neutral way.”