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Judge wants to hear Obama pal before ruling him a hostile witness

SPRINGFIELD — Federal prosecutors in Springfield moved a step closer Wednesday to being allowed to treat Dr. Eric Whitaker, a former Illinois state public health director who is one of President Barack Obama’s closest friends, as a hostile witness in a fraud trial involving a Chicago businessman accused of spending more than $3 million in state health grants on luxury cars and vacation homes.

But they’ll have to question Whitaker outside the presence of the jury, U.S. District Judge Richard Mills ruled, before he’ll decide whether they can treat him as a hostile prosecution witness.

Mills noted that Whitaker, who hasn’t been charged with any crime, has stopped answering prosecutors’ questions, despite a deal with them to cooperate. He also agreed with prosecutors that there is “significant evidence” that Whitaker has ties to Leon Dingle Jr., the businessman charged with misappropriating grants awarded by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“Given that and Dr. Whitaker’s refusal to comply with the cooperation agreement, it appears there is a basis to finding that he is a witness identified with Dr. Dingle and a witness hostile to the government,” the judge said in his ruling Wednesday.

But Mills also wrote that he wants to “observe the witness before making such a determination.”

Prosecutors haven’t announced whether they will go ahead and call the president’s friend as a witness.

Whitaker’s criminal-defense lawyer, Henry E. Hockeimer of Philadelphia, couldn’t be reached Wednesday for comment.

Mills said in his ruling that Hockeimer told him the earliest Whitaker could testify is Monday. The judge said his understanding is that Whitaker is in California until late Thursday night and has “business commitments” Friday.

The hostile-witness distinction would give prosecutors leeway to ask leading questions of Whitaker that normally wouldn’t be allowed. They could, for instance, lay out broad statements and ask Whitaker whether he agrees or disagrees with them.

“A leading question is probably one of the most important things you can use in any trial,” said Daniel T. Coyne, an IIT-Chicago Kent College of Law professor. “This is all about the prosecutor being able to tell the story and craft the story so he gets the agreement of the witness. . . . You can put in your entire case through leading questions.”

Prosecutors moved to label Whitaker a hostile witness after he reneged on a deal he made in 2012 to cooperate with authorities investigating fraud involving numerous grants from the health department, which he headed under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich between 2003 and 2007.

Whitaker, a 49-year-old Chicago physician, is part of the president’s inner circle, often photographed playing golf or basketball with him.

In their hostile-witness motion filed Tuesday, the U.S. attorney’s office in Springfield — where Dingle is on trial along with his wife, Karin Dingle — cited three instances in which they said state grant money awarded to Dingle ended up benefiting Whitaker.

Whitaker stopped cooperating after being asked about his relationship with Quinshaunta R. Golden, who was his chief of staff at the state agency and oversaw the awarding of millions of dollars in state grants and contracts to Dingle, according to prosecutors. Prosecutors had questioned Whitaker about whether he’d had a “sexual relationship” with Golden, a lawyer for Dingle revealed at an Oct. 1 pretrial hearing.

Prosecutors argued Whitaker is “a witness clearly hostile to the government” not only for refusing to cooperate but also because of his ties to Dingle.

“The government is not seeking permission to [treat Whitaker as a hostile witness] solely because Dr. Whitaker refused to answer a single question about a sexual relationship with Golden. It is counsel for Dingle . . . that has raised such an issue,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy A. Bass wrote. “Rather, Dr. Whitaker was the director of DPH . . . during the time millions of dollars in grant funds were awarded to” a not-for-profit group Dingle controlled.”

Whitaker and Golden oversaw the awarding of about $4 million in state grants to Dingle between 2003 and September 2007. Dingle got another $7 million under Whitaker’s successor, Dr. Damon Arnold.

Dingle, 77, is accused of spending more than $3 million from those grants — intended for AIDS-awareness and other health programs — on vacation homes, luxury cars and other items for himself and his wife. He’s charged with conspiracy, mail fraud and money laundering. Karin Dingle, 75, is charged with conspiracy and mail fraud for her role in the scheme.

Bass wrote that state grant money awarded to Dingle ended up benefiting Whitaker in these instances:

• Dingle steered $25,000 in state grant money to the National Medical Fellowship, which honored Whitaker as a distinguished alumnus at a November 2008 gala in Chicago after he’d left the health department. Whitaker and Dingle had “at least one” meeting to discuss the foundation.

• In November 2007, Dingle paid $745 for Rainbow / Push “Unity Globe” awards for Whitaker and Golden and a “Female Ebony Strength Award” for Golden funded “at least in part” with state grant money.

• In October 2007 — during a trip to a bird-flu summit in Las Vegas, Nev. — Dingle, Whitaker, Golden and others attended a dinner and a Toni Braxton concert at the Flamingo hotel. Dingle paid the $1,471 bill for the dinner and concert, “funded at least in part” with grant funds.

After Whitaker left state government, he was a top administrator at the University of Chicago Medical Center, making more than $700,000 a year. Golden followed him to U. of C. as his $328,010-a-year top aide. Both have since resigned from the medical center.

The charges against Dingle stem from an investigation that also led to criminal charges against Golden and eight others. In 2009, Whitaker was named in a subpoena sent to the health department.

Golden, 46, has pleaded guilty to stealing $400,000 in taxpayer money in a related scheme hatched with Roxanne B. Jackson, a health department human resources director under Whitaker. Like Golden, Jackson, 49, was charged with bribery and theft and has pleaded guilty. Both await sentencing.

Following Golden’s indictment, Whitaker said in August 2013 that he wasn’t aware of any wrongdoing involving the grants awarded by his agency.

“I had no firsthand knowledge of the activities outlined in [Golden’s] indictment and was not involved in any way,” Whitaker said on Aug. 8, 2013. “As requested by the U.S. attorney, I have been fully cooperating with the investigation into these matters.”

Bass took issue with that statement on Tuesday. He wrote that after Whitaker struck his deal with prosecutors, “Law enforcement agents interviewed Dr. Whitaker. During the interview, he refused to answer any questions concerning his personal relationship with Golden. The day after the return of the Golden indictment several months later on August 7, 2013, however, [Whitaker] represented to the media that ‘as requested by the U.S. attorney, I have been fully cooperating with the investigation into these matters.’ . . . That statement was at best inaccurate.

“Between the spring of 2014 and continuing to shortly before the commencement of the trial in this matter, the government made repeated requests to Dr. Whitaker’s counsel to meet with Dr. Whitaker . . . and issued Dr. Whitaker a trial subpoena to provide testimony. He did not agree to any of the government requests and is the only witness who has refused to do so.”