SPRINGFIELD — A Chicago businessman and his wife were convicted Wednesday on more than a dozen counts of stealing $3.4 million in state taxpayer money as part of a rampant fraud scheme involving Illinois Department of Public Health grants.
A federal jury deliberated for just over five hours before dealing a clean sweep for the government in finding Leon Dingle Jr., 77, and Karin Dingle, 75, guilty on 17 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud and money laundering. The Dingles could face dozens of years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and forfeitures when they are sentenced April 9.
The Dingles and their co-defendants, who earlier pleaded guilty, stole what amounted to $2 of every $5 they received in grant funds form IDPH from 2004 to 2010, prosecutors said. The scheme involved $11 million of mostly no-bid, upfront-funded grants ostensibly doled out for AIDS- and cancer-awareness campaigns in minority and under-served communities.
The $3.4 million that found its way into the Dingles’ pockets — a “conservative” estimate, assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Bass said — financed a lavish lifestyle: luxury cars; renovations of vacation homes in Savannah, Georgia, and Hilton Head, South Carolina; yacht-club expenses; and copious family gifts, such as a $95,000 payment on their son’s mortgage.
The verdict is a victory for U.S. Attorney James Lewis, whose public corruption task force has obtained 13 convictions since 2011 involving state grant fraud, including former state Rep. Connie Howard, a Chicago Democrat, and Jeri Wright, the daughter of President Barack Obama’s one-time pastor. Another case awaits trial.
Lewis told reporters the case was critical because it involved tax money intended for needed services.
“People have to be able to trust that their money is going for the right purposes,” Lewis said. “And if that trust is violated, they have to know that the U.S. attorney’s office and other prosecutors will pursue it.”
Leon Dingle declined comment. His lawyer, Ed Genson, and Karin Dingle’s attorney Ronald Clark, predicted an appeal but declined further comment.
The case against Dingle, a well-regarded and successful Chicago businessman, and his wife was part of a probe that had drawn four previous guilty pleas. Quinshaunta Golden, the former IDPH chief of staff who controlled the grants, pleaded guilty to bribery, mail fraud and making false statements. She conspired with former agency human resources director Roxanne Jackson to split ill-gotten gains; Jackson pleaded guilty to bribery and tax fraud. They await sentencing.
Lewis would not comment on further indictments in the IDPH case. He noted that Dr. Eric Whitaker, a close friend of Obama’s who served as IDPH director from 2003 to 2007, is not a target of the investigation. Whitaker made the list of government witnesses, and although never summoned, Bass repeatedly invoked his name to establish a landscape of access and influence Dingle allegedly cultivated to breed criminal activity.
The Dingles’ two co-defendants — longtime bookkeeper Jacquelyn Kilpatrick, who admitted stealing $900,000, and her companion Edmond Clemons — pleaded guilty to mail and tax fraud and await sentencing.
Genson argued that the Dingles’ only failure was in blindly trusting Kilpatrick. He said the 30-year employee faked records and hid her theft.
Clark contended Karin Dingle was not guilty of tax fraud because Kilpatrick handled returns and that she didn’t commit money laundering by buying a $59,000 Mercedes Benz because she withdrew from an account that had money she legitimately got for renting office space as well as grant funds.
JOHN O’CONNOR, Associated Press