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Key federal witness breaks down in Wright money-laundering trial

SPRINGFIELD — Facing possible prison time, the ex-cop husband of former Country Club Hills police chief Regina Evans tearfully broke down on the witness stand Wednesday during emotional testimony in the federal money-laundering trial of the daughter of President Barack Obama’s one-time pastor.

Ronald Evans, a key government witness in the case against Jeri Wright, was reduced to tears by a defense lawyer seeking to portray his client as an unwitting participant in a state grant-fraud scheme orchestrated by Evans’ wife, who has admitted with her husband to squandering $1.25 million in state job-training funds.

Wright, 48, of Hazel Crest, is a childhood friend of Regina Evans and is accused in an 11-count federal indictment of money-laundering, lying to federal investigators and lying to a federal grand jury.

The government believes Wright improperly pocketed as much as $11,000 in state job-training funds and allegedly lied to federal authorities and grand jurors when asked about the money, the prosecution contends.

The Evanses, who have pleaded guilty for their roles in the grant-fraud scheme, have acknowledged that they misspent the state job-training money on new furniture and renovations at their County Club Hills home, mortgage payments on their former Chicago home, a trip to Las Vegas and cash for her family and friends.

They misused an additional $180,000 in grant funds by paying down a $2 million mortgage that Regina and Ronald Evans had on the New Regal Theater at 79th and Stony Island, which they purchased and had intended to rehabilitate before they fell behind on payments and lost the property to foreclosure.

The theater was sold by the FDIC last month for $100,000 to a Chicago-based entity, Community Capital Investment, LLC, a spokesman for the federal agency confirmed Wednesday.

Dragged down by their failed theater endeavor, Regina and Ronald Evans declared bankruptcy in 2010 and were indicted in 2012.

“She took you down, didn’t she? Isn’t that correct,” Wright’s lawyer, John Taylor, asked Ronald Evans on Wednesday morning in a federal courtroom in Springfield.

“Tell me the truth now. She took you down. Tell me the truth,” Taylor pressed Ronald Evans a day after telling jurors that his client, Wright, also was “lied to” and “deceived” by Regina Evans.

Ronald Evans, a one-time Chicago police officer and inspector general under his wife in the Country Club Hills Police Department, paused 20 seconds as tears welled up in his eyes and he doused them with a tissue.

“Yes,” he said softly, his voice cracking, as jurors appeared riveted to his testimony.

Ronald Evans, who sought the state grant with his wife, pleaded guilty last summer to one count each of wire fraud and money-laundering and has pledged to cooperate with federal investigators. He awaits sentencing in Springfield.

Regina Evans faces up to 121 months in prison after pleading guilty to fraud charges and awaits sentencing March 24. She also has pleaded guilty to witness tampering, obstruction of justice and conspiracy.

Her husband appeared Wednesday as a government witness, outlining how Wright was paid from the state job-training grant and testifying that she did nothing for that money, which had been funneled through the Evans’ nonprofit, We Are Our Brother’s Keeper.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Bass showed jurors documents displaying Wright’s supposed grant-related duties with the nonprofit; her 2009 earnings statement from the organization; and payroll checks she had cashed, siphoning off a portion of those proceeds back to the Evanses.

“To your knowledge, did people like Ms. Wright . . . have anything to do with the We Are Our Brother’s Keeper grant?” Bass asked Ronald Evans, who was identified in documents he and his wife submitted to the state as the group’s executive director.

“No,” he answered.

The Evanses had indicated to the state Department of Commerce and Community Affairs that Wright would be a program coordinator, work 130 hours a month and help minority job-training enrollees with basic skills instruction and career development, among other things.

Asked if he ever observed Wright doing any of those things, Ronald Evans said, “Not that I’m aware of.”

Bass showed jurors five checks, bearing Ronald Evans’ signature, that were written to Wright and cashed by her from proceeds of the state grant.

One check was for $11,933, purportedly for grant work she had performed between June and August of 2009. Another was for $7,955 for grant work between September and October of that year. And three others, each for $3,977, were written to Wright between November 2009 and February 2010.

Bass asked Ronald Evans three times whether Wright had performed any work related to the grant for any of that money, and each time he answered “No.”

Wright’s trial could spill into next week.

Her father, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was Obama’s former minister but Obama distanced himself after inflammatory comments by Wright in 2008 threatened to derail his first presidential bid.

Wright, who has not attended his daughter’s trial in Springfield, retired as pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ in 2008 and is listed on the church website as “pastor emeritus.”

The former pastor served an important role as a spiritual leader when Obama was younger, and he presided at the Obamas’ marriage.

Wright’s sermons also provided the title for Obama’s second book, “The Audacity of Hope.”

But during the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama distanced himself from his longtime pastor when videotape surfaced of Wright’s sermons, which were regarded as anti-American and anti-Semitic.

The video forced Obama to deliver a speech on race relations in Philadelphia. Obama finally cut all ties with Wright after the pastor’s April 2008 appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, where instead of tamping down his profile and the controversy, delivered comments that only inflamed the situation.