SPRINGFIELD — Federal prosecutors said Tuesday they will not call one of President Barack Obama’s closest friends, Dr. Eric E. Whitaker, before a jury hearing a multimillion-dollar grand-fraud case because of “baseless accusations” they say Whitaker leveled the day before.
“We are not going to call Dr. Whitaker as a witness,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy A. Bass told Judge Richard Mills, who ruled Monday that Whitaker would have been a “hostile witness” had prosecutors decided to call him.
Bass grilled Whitaker for more than two hours Monday without jurors present. Prosecutors had sought to declare him “hostile” because he’d stopped cooperating with them in 2012 after they asked him if he’d had a “personal relationship” with his former chief of staff, Quinshaunta Golden — who’s awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to theft and bribery charges — and also because they’d learned he’d frequently communicated with Chicago businessman Leon Dingle Jr., 77.
Dingle is on trial and accused of conspiring with his wife, Karin Dingle, 75, to siphon more than $3 million from no-bid state grants and contracts that began flowing to not-for-profit groups Leon Dingle controlled when Whitaker headed the Illinois Department of Public Health between 2003 and 2007.
Whitaker, a 49-year-old African-American physician from Chicago, became combative with Bass at the end of Monday’s hearing, suggesting racial bias was behind the wave of fraud cases brought by the Justice Department in the Central District of Illinois. Nine of the 10 people charged in those cases are black, including Golden and Roxanne B. Jackson, 49, who was Whitaker’s human resources director at the health department. Karin Dingle is the only white defendant.
“Almost everybody who’s been indicted or scrutinized has been African-American,” Whitaker said, also telling Bass he’s against “selective” investigations.
“Personally, I’m upset about this process and how I’ve been made to look like I’m on trial,” Whitaker later testified.
Without going into detail, Bass said Tuesday the government would not call Whitaker as a witness because of the “baseless accusations” Whitaker made in his testimony. “I’ll leave it at that,” Bass also said.
Instead, prosecutors plan to introduce photographs, emails and other evidence involving Whitaker into the trial, which is expected to wrap up this week.
Whitaker’s attorney, Henry E. Hockeimer, said he did not anticipate the Dingles would be calling Whitaker to the stand either. He didn’t comment further.
Blaire Dalton, a Dingle attorney, had revealed in an Oct. 1 pretrial hearing that Whitaker had “answered every single question posed to him by the government other than the question of whether or not he had, in fact, this sexual relationship with Quin Golden.”
But prosecutors on Monday didn’t ask that question of Whitaker, who with his wife and family often vacation with the Obamas. The closest they came was asking Whitaker if his relationship with Golden was “more than professional.”
“That’s fair to say,” Whitaker replied, not elaborating.
Whitaker — who met Obama when they attended Harvard together and often plays golf or basketball with the president — became a figure in the federal investigation in 2009, when he was named in a subpoena to the health department.
Asked Monday about Golden — who admitted to stealing about $400,000 in taxpayer money in a scheme with Jackson — Whitaker replied, “I had no idea. . . . I didn’t participate. I had no knowledge.”
Prosecutors also introduced emails in which one of Whitaker’s brothers, Larry Whitaker, apparently had been communicating with him about obtaining business for his printing company from Dingle and state government.
“Tell Vic to kick me some low-dollar, no-bid stuff, just to keep me open for now,” one of the emails from Larry Whitaker to Eric Whitaker read.
“I don’t recall this, and I don’t know who Vic is,” Whitaker told Bass.
Bass also questioned Whitaker about a 2007 a bird-flu summit trip to Las Vegas in which Dingle paid a $1,471 bill for Whitaker, Golden and others to attend a dinner and Toni Braxton concert at the Flamingo hotel. Whitaker told Bass he believed he reported the outing in accordance with state gift rules.
Whitaker also testified that he and Golden called Dingle shortly after Dingle’s indictment. “It’s been my experience that, if I know them, I call people and give them a good word,” he said.
Whitaker and Golden oversaw the awarding of about $4 million in state grants to Dingle between April 2003 and September 2007. Dingle got another $7 million under Whitaker’s successor, Dr. Damon Arnold.
Dingle and his wife are 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.
Judge Mills grew testy with Whitaker on Monday after Bass asked him about Tony Rezko, a former fund-raiser for former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Obama. Rezko, like Blagojevich, is now in prison after being convicted on public-corruption charges.
Obama has said that in 2003, when he was an Illinois state senator, he gave a “glowing” reference for Whitaker to Rezko, who helped Blagojevich fill vacancies heading state agencies.
Dalton, Dingle’s lawyer, objected to the Rezko question, prompting Whitaker himself to ask if an objection is warranted.
The judge was taken aback, telling Whitaker “Who’s running the show here?” and denying the objection.