Obama pal Eric Whitaker stonewalls feds in grant-fraud case

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Dr. Eric E. Whitaker, one of President Barack Obama’s closest friends, has refused to answer federal prosecutors’ questions about whether he had a “sexual relationship” with a former aide who pleaded guilty to stealing $400,000 in taxpayers’ money in a scheme that began when Whitaker was her boss at the Illinois Department of Public Health, court records show.

Prosecutors announced the bribery and theft charges against Quinshaunta R. Golden, who’d been Whitaker’s chief of staff at the state agency, on Aug. 7, 2013. The following day, Whitaker told reporters he was “fully cooperating” in the federal investigation.

In fact, prosecutors say, Whitaker already had stopped cooperating by then, has refused to speak with investigators ever since and now faces the prospect of being called as a “hostile witness” in a related case against two other defendants charged with defrauding taxpayers, according to a court transcript obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The 49-year-old Chicago physician had an agreement “to provide complete and truthful information to the government,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy A. Bass told U.S. District Judge Richard Mills in Springfield last month.

But, “following the execution of that agreement,” Whitaker “refused to answer certain questions about his relationship with Ms. Golden,” Bass told the judge.

The prosecutor said Whitaker “then represented to the media that he was fully cooperating with the government” even though he “has refused to meet with the government pursuant to that agreement, and, just recently, through his counsel, advised the government that he was expressly refusing to meet with the government.”

Whitaker’s actions surfaced during an Oct. 1 pretrial hearing in the case of Chicago businessman Leon Dingle Jr., who’s now on trial in Springfield for conspiracy, mail fraud and money-laundering. Dingle is accused of using his relationships with Golden; another former Whitaker aide at the Department of Public Health, Roxanne B. Jackson; and others to siphon off more than $3 million in taxpayers’ money for his own use, spending it on things including luxury cars and vacation homes.

Whitaker and his family have continued to vacation with the president and his family amid the federal probe. Whitaker is a frequent companion of Obama on the basketball court and golf course.

Asked about the case, Marj Halperin, a spokeswoman for Whitaker, said Thursday: “Dr. Whitaker is not a party to the case, but he has been cooperative, and he’s been told he could potentially be called as a witness. Because of this potential of serving as a witness, it would be inappropriate to share any further details through the media.”

The White House declined to comment.

Jackson, 49, was the Department of Public Health’s human resources chief in 2003 and 2004 when Whitaker ran the state agency under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Golden then arranged for Jackson to work as a consultant for Dingle, court records show.

Golden awarded millions of dollars in grants and state contracts from the health department to Dingle, who has a doctorate in public health and ran several health-related not-for-profit organizations. Prosecutors say that, at Golden’s direction, $772,500 of that money went to Jackson, who kicked back half of that to Golden. Records show Golden also got additional kickbacks from Jackson through a health department contract Golden gave to a security company owned by Jackson’s brother.

Golden and Jackson have pleaded guilty to bribery and theft charges and are cooperating with prosecutors. Both await sentencing. Prosecutors have agreed to recommend a sentence of no more than 10 years for Golden and four years and three months for Jackson.

Dingle has denied stealing taxpayer money, saying the state money was legitimately spent on health programs under Whitaker and Dr. Damon Arnold, who succeeded Whitaker.

Blaire C. Dalton, one of Dingle’s lawyers, brought up the subject of a possible Whitaker-Golden relationship at the Oct. 1 hearing in hopes of having the judge declare the matter off-limits at Dingle’s trial.

Dalton revealed that Whitaker had been cooperating in the investigation under a so-called proffer agreement. Federal prosecutors often make such deals with witnesses who have information to help a case. The witnesses cooperate in exchange for an assurance that, as long as they tell the truth, their statements can’t be used to charge them with a crime.

Whitaker “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,” said Dalton, who is representing Dingle along with attorney Edward M. Genson. “I believe the government wants to declare [Whitaker] as a hostile witness so that the government can ask him this question in trial and so that he, while under oath, he has to testify to it.”

Prosecutors haven’t filed a motion to declare anyone a hostile witness but indicated in court this week they “will be filing a motion to declare a future witness as a hostile witness,” records show.

Mills has agreed to allow prosecutors to introduce evidence that Dingle, whose wife Karin Dingle, 75, is a co-defendant in the case, had dating relationships and sexual encounters with other women, including Golden, 46.

Prosecutors accuse Dingle, 77, of using $10,000 in state grant funds as “hush money” to silence a health department consultant who, according to Bass’ statements in court, walked in to Golden’s state office and found Dingle and Golden together, with Golden “partially undressed and re-dressing herself from the waist up.”

Dr. Eric Whitaker (left), Quinshaunta Golden, Leon Dingle Jr. and Golden’s uncle, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., at an Illinois Department of Public Health event in 2007. | U.S. District Court exhibit

Golden, a niece of West Side Democratic U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis, is married to Victor Golden, a $111,432-a-year administrator with the Illinois Lottery. She was Whitaker’s chief of staff at the health department before following him when he took a job at the University of Chicago Medical Center, where her yearly compensation as his top aide rose to $328,010 as of mid-2012, records show.

Whitaker and Golden resigned from the U. of C. in 2013.

Whitaker has said he wasn’t aware of any wrongdoing involving millions of dollars in HIV-awareness, nurse-training, flu-pandemic and other health grants doled out during the time he headed the health department, from April 2003 to October 2007.

“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, following Golden’s indictment. “As requested by the U.S. attorney, I have been fully cooperating with the investigation into these matters.”

Whitaker met Obama when the two were in graduate school at Harvard. In 2003, Obama — then an Illinois state senator — gave a “glowing” reference for Whitaker to Tony Rezko, the now-convicted political fixer who helped Blagojevich fill vacancies heading state agencies.

Obama has said that’s the only time he remembers ever speaking with Rezko — who was a major campaign fund-raiser for him and for Blagojevich — about getting anyone a state job.

“Somebody who I do remember talking directly to Tony about was Dr. Eric Whitaker,” Obama told the Sun-Times in March 2008. “He and I played basketball together when he was getting his master’s in public health at Harvard, while I was in law school there. He had expressed an interest in that job. I did contact Tony, or Tony contacted me, and I gave him a glowing recommendation because I thought he was outstanding.”

Whitaker became a figure in the federal investigation in 2009, when he was named in a subpoena sent to the health department. He has not been charged with any crime.

Federal prosecutors in Springfield have since indicted 10 people in the investigation. Seven have pleaded guilty. Beside Golden and Jackson, they include former Democratic state Rep. Constance A. “Connie” Howard of Chicago, who founded an AIDS-awareness charity that got $1.2 million in state health grants. Prosecutors have said that money was illegally used to help the charity’s executive director pay for his home and to pay Howard’s staff and office rent, among other things.

Prosecutors have introduced evidence in the Dingle trial that he bought $120-a-seat tickets for Golden, Whitaker, himself and others to a Toni Braxton concert at the Flamingo Hotel Showroom in Las Vegas on Sept. 27, 2007, while they were attending a health conference in that city.

Prosecutors also introduced photos of Whitaker with Dingle and Golden at a July 20, 2007, event for the Illinois Faith-Based Emergency Preparedness Initiative, which involved training black and Hispanic ministers to spread the word on what to do in case of a flu pandemic or other emergency. It’s one of the programs Dingle is accused of raiding for his personal use.

“The government’s evidence will establish that Dr. Dingle had unique access to both Dr. Whitaker and Quin Golden during the time that Dr. Whitaker and Ms. Golden were awarding state grants to Dr. Dingle,” prosecutor Bass said at the Oct. 1 hearing. “In fact, one of the pieces of [evidence] that we’re going to introduce, your honor, is that Dr. Dingle sponsored and paid for awards. One award, called a Unity Globe Award to Dr. Whitaker and Ms. Golden . . . each of whom received a plaque at a cost of $745 paid for by Dr. Dingle during the time that Dr. Whitaker and Ms. Golden were approving state grants that they knew were going to Dr. Dingle.”

In an unusual move, Dingle’s attorneys have communicated with Whitaker’s attorneys in an effort to keep Whitaker from being called as a “hostile witness.”

“We have received an affidavit from [Whitaker’s] attorneys affirming that their client . . . if he’s called to take the stand, will testify truthfully and accurately as to that question if it is possessed to him,” Dalton told the judge, referring to whether Whitaker and Golden had a sexual relationship. So Whitaker “should not be declared a hostile witness because he will answer truthfully,” she said.

Dingle Oct. 1, 2014, pretrial transcript

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