- Associated Press - Monday, December 15, 2014

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - By gaining access to and influence with the director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, a Chicago couple stole more than $3 million in taxpayer money that was intended for AIDS awareness and other pressing health campaigns, and instead bought Mercedes Benzes and helped pay their son’s mortgage, a prosecutor told a federal criminal jury Monday.

Leon Dingle Jr., 77, and his wife, Karin, 75, converted $3.4 million into personal use as part of a conspiracy in which six people pocketed, “conservatively,” $5 million out of $11 million in state public health grant funds from 2004 to 2010, assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Bass said in his closing argument.

“What a country!” Bass exclaimed. “You say you’re going to do a public good, you control money, you write checks and you make yourselves millionaires 3½ times over.”

The Dingles are charged with conspiracy, mail fraud, and money laundering in a Justice Department investigation that has prompted guilty pleas from four other conspirators. They include Quinshaunta Golden, the former Department of Public Health chief of staff to Dr. Eric Whitaker, director of the agency from 2003 to 2007 who is a close friend of President Barack Obama.

The defense has argued during the seven-week trial that the Dingles played by the rules and worked hard for the money they got. Attorneys for the couple will present closing arguments Tuesday before the case goes to the jury.

Whitaker is not accused of wrongdoing, but his possible involvement in the trial gained l attention last week when the golfing buddy of the Democratic president testified outside the presence of the jury in the government’s request to use “hostile” or leading questions if called to the stand; he was not.

Whitaker, who is black, accused the U.S. attorney’s office for the central district of Illinois of racial bias because many of the defendants snared in its public corruption probes are black. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a Whitaker friend who is also black, told the Chicago Sun-Times he’s not intimately familiar with the Dingle case, but believes his Springfield-based attorneys can be fair.

Whitaker played prominently in Bass’ closing. Whitaker stressed the “access, influence and personal relationships” Leon Dingle allegedly cultivated during the scheme. He used grant money to donate to an organization that was giving Whitaker an award and he used taxpayer money when he paid for a $1,700 Las Vegas dinner that Whitaker attended.

Bass reminded the jury of evidence he said showed the Dingles used tax dollars to pay for two Mercedes Benzes, $300,000 in certificates of deposit and a $97,000 payment on their son’s mortgage. The indictment also mentions yacht-club memberships in Chicago and South Carolina and vacation-home restorations in Savannah, Georgia, and Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Two other defendants - Jacquelyn Kilpatrick and Edmond Clemons - pleaded guilty in October to filing false income tax returns. Kilpatrick also pleaded guilty to mail fraud. They are scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 12.

Golden, who steered millions of dollars to Dingle, pleaded guilty in April to bribery and theft, mail fraud and obstruction of justice. She conspired in the scheme with former public health human resources director Roxanne Jackson. Jackson will be sentenced in January on her September guilty plea for bribery and theft.

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Contact John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor


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