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Justice Dept. labels Obama pal Eric Whitaker a ‘hostile witness’

President Barack Obama’s Justice Department is seeking to treat one of the president’s closest friends, Dr. Eric E. Whitaker, as a “hostile witness” in the ongoing trial of Leon Dingle Jr., a Chicago businessman charged with stealing more than $3 million in taxpayer money in a fraud scheme involving state grants.

Federal prosecutors filed the hostile-witness motion Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Springfield, where Dingle is on trial. They cited three instances in which they said state grant money awarded to Dingle ended up benefiting Whitaker, who hasn’t been charged with any crime.

The motion comes after Whitaker backed off a deal he struck in 2012 to cooperate with authorities investigating fraud involving grants from the Illinois Department of Public Health, which he headed under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

He stopped cooperating after being asked about his relationship with Quinshaunta R. Golden, who was his chief of staff at the state agency and oversaw the awarding of millions of dollars in state grants and contracts to Dingle, according to prosecutors. Prosecutors had questioned Whitaker about whether he’d had a “sexual relationship” with Golden, a lawyer for Dingle revealed at an Oct. 1 pretrial hearing.

In their 13-page motion, prosecutors said Whitaker is “a witness clearly hostile to the government” not only for refusing to cooperate, but also because of his ties to Dingle.

“The government is not seeking permission to [treat Whitaker as a hostile witness] solely because Dr. Whitaker refused to answer a single question about a sexual relationship with Golden. It is counsel for Dingle . . . that has raised such an issue,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy A. Bass wrote. “Rather, Dr. Whitaker was the Director of DPH . . . during the time millions of dollars in grant funds were awarded to” a not-for-profit group Dingle controlled.

Whitaker and Golden oversaw the awarding of about $4 million in state grants to Dingle between 2003 and September 2007. Dingle got another $7 million under Whitaker’s successor, Dr. Damon Arnold.

Dingle, 77, is 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 for himself. He’s charged with conspiracy, mail fraud and money laundering. His wife, Karin Dingle, 75, is charged with conspiracy and mail fraud.

Bass wrote that state grant money awarded to Dingle ended up benefiting Whitaker in these instances:

• Dingle steered $25,000 in state grant money to the National Medical Fellowship, which honored Whitaker as a distinguished alumnus at a November 2008 gala in Chicago after he’d left the health department. Whitaker and Dingle had “at least one” meeting to discuss the foundation. 

• In November 2007, Dingle paid $745 for Rainbow / Push “Unity Globe” awards for Whitaker and Golden and a “Female Ebony Strength Award” for Golden funded “at least in part” with state grant money.

• In October 2007 — during a trip to a bird-flu summit in Las Vegas, Nev. — Dingle, Whitaker, Golden and others attended a dinner and a Toni Braxton concert at the Flamingo hotel. Dingle paid the $1,471 bill for the dinner and concert, “funded at least in part” with grant funds.

After Whitaker left state government, he was a top administrator at the University of Chicago Medical Center, making more than $700,000 a year. Golden followed him to U. of C. as his $328,010-a-year top aide. Both have since resigned from the medical center.

Whitaker, a 49-year-old Chicago physician, is often photographed playing golf or basketball with the president. He is part of the president’s inner circle.

Marj Halperin, a spokeswoman for Whitaker, had no comment Tuesday. 

The charges against Dingle stem from an  investigation that also led to criminal charges against Golden and eight others. In 2009, Whitaker was named in a subpoena sent to the health department.

Golden, 46, has pleaded guilty to stealing $400,000 in taxpayer money in a related scheme hatched with Roxanne B. Jackson, a health department human resources director under Whitaker. Like Golden, Jackson, 49, was charged with bribery and theft and has pleaded guilty. Both await sentencing. 

Following Golden’s indictment, Whitaker said in August 2013 that he wasn’t aware of any wrongdoing involving the grants awarded by his agency.

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

Prosecutors took aim at that statement in their motion. After Whitaker struck his deal with prosecutors, “law enforcement agents interviewed Dr. Whitaker. During the interview, he refused to answer any questions concerning his personal relationship with Golden,” Bass wrote. “The day after the return of the Golden indictment several months later on August 7, 2013, however, [Whitaker] represented to the media that ‘as requested by the U.S. attorney, I have been fully cooperating with the investigation into these matters.’ . . . That statement was at best inaccurate.

“Between the spring of 2014 and continuing to shortly before the commencement of the trial in this matter, the government made repeated requests to Dr. Whitaker’s counsel to meet with Dr. Whitaker . . . and issued Dr. Whitaker a trial subpoena to provide testimony. He did not agree to any of the government requests and is the only witness who has refused to do so.”