SPRINGFIELD — Federal prosecutors plan to summon Dr. Eric E. Whitaker, one of President Barack Obama’s closest friends, into U.S. District Court in Springfield next week to question him outside the presence of jurors before a judge decides whether Whitaker can be called as a hostile witness in the fraud trial of a Chicago businessman.
The 49-year-old Chicago physician is set to be questioned by prosecutors at 2 p.m. Monday before U.S. District Judge Richard Mills. The judge ruled this week that prosecutors made a good case to treat Whitaker as a hostile prosecution witness but said he would hold off ruling on their request until first hearing how Whitaker answers questions outside the presence of the jury.
After questioning Whitaker and getting Mills’ ruling, prosecutors will decide whether to call him to testify in the trial of Leon Dingle Jr. and his wife, Karin Dingle, who are accused of stealing more than $3 million in state grants obtained from the Illinois Department of Public Health, which Whitaker headed from 2003 to 2007.
“The final determination as to whether [Whitaker] would be called as a witness in the case has not been determined,” Sharon Paul, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Springfield, said Thursday.
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.”
During the time he served as the state health director under then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Whitaker oversaw the awarding of about $4 million in health-related grants and contracts to Dingle, who also got another $7 million in taxpayer cash from Whitaker’s successor, Dr. Damon Arnold.
Mills noted in his ruling Wednesday that Whitaker, who hasn’t been charged with any crime, has stopped answering prosecutors’ questions despite making a deal with them to cooperate. The judge also agreed with prosecutors that there is “significant evidence” Whitaker has ties to Dingle, who prosecutors say donated $25,000 in grant money to a medical scholarship fund that honored Whitaker at a gala.