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Attorney blames couple’s bookkeeper in grant fraud case

A federal jury will begin deliberating Wednesday in the trial of a Chicago businessman and his wife accused of using millions of dollars in state public health grant money for luxury cars, vacation home upkeep and a mortgage for their son.

Leon Dingle, 77, and Karin Dingle, 75, are charged with conspiracy, mail fraud and money laundering for allegedly steering grant money intended for AIDS- and cancer-awareness campaigns through a web of organizations and into their pockets. If convicted, they both could face decades in prison.

The government claims they used the money to buy two Mercedes Benzes; renovate vacation homes in Savannah, Georgia, and Hilton Head, South Carolina; pay yacht club expenses and $97,000 on their son’s mortgage.

In all, prosecutors claim that of $11 million in mostly no-bid, upfront-funded grants doled out by Illinois Department of Public Health from 2004 to 2010, $5 million went to six people. Four others in the alleged scheme have pleaded guilty.

But in his closing argument Tuesday, Dingle attorney Ed Genson said misplaced confidence, not criminal intent, was the businessman’s transgression. The Dingles failed in not spotting the book-cooking by longtime and trusted employee Jacquelyn Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick, a co-defendant in the case, has pleaded guilty to mail and tax fraud and awaits sentencing.

Genson said Kilpatrick, who served felony probation for forgery in the 1980s, took money moving among various accounts the Dingles maintained, stealing $1 million. How, Genson asked, could the Dingles be culpable if they were unaware of the theft?

“If someone steals $1 million from you and you haven’t figured it out, you don’t know,” Genson said.

In a rebuttal, assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Bass said it was absurd to believe the Dingles were unaware of the fraud. He scoffed at Genson’s characterization of comments by Dingle to Kilpatrick such as, “Make it work,” as “throwaway” comments, not instructions to commit crime.

“They all stole it together,” Bass said.

In the closing days of the seven-week trial, the government considered calling the former director of the health department, Dr. Eric Whitaker, a golfing buddy of President Barack Obama. Although he was never summoned, Whitaker, director from 2003 to 2007, figured prominently. Bass continually invoked his name in closing arguments to establish a landscape of access and influence Dingle allegedly cultivated to breed criminal activity.

Genson bristled at repeated references to Dingle’s influence with Whitaker and the fact that a witness testified she surprised Dingle and former IDPH chief of staff Quinshaunta Golden — who controlled the grants — in an apparent sexual tryst in Golden’s office in December 2007. He dismissed Dingle’s purchase of award trophies, football skybox seats, Toni Braxton concert tickets and dinners that benefited Whitaker and Golden. Golden has pleaded guilty to bribery and other charges and is awaiting sentencing.

Having Influence or sex are not crimes, Genson said. Instead, the money went to someone who was “working like the dog” to get the job done while blindly trusting Kilpatrick, he said.

Bass countered, “After Leon Dingle came back from a meeting with Dr. Whitaker or Quin Golden . . . the money spigot kept flowing — that’s all she [Kilpatrick] knew. She did what she was told.”