Dr. Eric Whitaker, a close friend of President Barack Obama, acknowledged that he is cooperating with federal authorities working on a $433,000 kickback scheme at the state public health agency he once led, but he said he was not involved in the alleged crimes.
Whitaker declined an interview request Thursday but released a statement following the indictment of Quinshaunta R. Golden, who was his chief of staff at the Illinois Department of Public Health. Golden is accused of conspiring with state grant recipients to divert federal money into her own pockets and then trying to cover it up.
"I had no firsthand knowledge of the activities outlined in this indictment and was not involved in any way," Whitaker said in the statement. "As requested by the U.S. attorney, I have been fully cooperating with the investigation into these matters."
There was no indication in the indictment that Whitaker knew of the wrongdoing. Asked Thursday if Whitaker is a target in the probe, James Lewis, U.S. attorney for the Central District of Illinois, offered the standard response of refusing to venture beyond details of the Golden indictment.
"At this point, the evidence has taken us to Quin Golden, and the evidence has not taken us farther," Lewis said. Pressed on whether Whitaker is in prosecutors' sights, Lewis said: "There's nothing in the material you have today that leads toward an answer to that question."
But Lewis answered "no" when asked if Obama is linked to the case, given that he is a Whitaker friend who recommended him for the public health job.
Whitaker, who golfed with Obama during the president's 52nd birthday celebration last weekend, left the state public health department in September 2007 to work with Michelle Obama at University of Chicago Medicine before leaving this year. Golden left her state job in early 2008 and joined Whitaker at U. of C.
Golden, the niece of U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, is the 13th person to be charged in a federal task force's ongoing investigation of state grant and contract fraud. Davis was aware of the investigation only "via newspaper accounts, family members and general knowledge" and never discussed it with Golden, said Davis spokesman Ira Cohen. Davis has not been questioned by federal authorities, Cohen said.
The task force's efforts already have claimed the political career of former state Rep. Connie Howard, who pleaded guilty last month to diverting as much as $28,000 from a scholarship fund she created to benefit needy students.
Also indicted in the grant probe is the daughter of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., the president's controversial former pastor. Jeri Wright, of Hazel Crest, has pleaded not guilty to charges of money laundering in a case involving former Country Club Hills police Chief Regina Evans. Wright is alleged to have helped Evans convert paychecks from Evans' nonprofit to Evans' personal use rather than using it for the intended purpose of training minority and female workers in the building trades.
According to the Golden indictment, starting in 2006, Golden directed grants to the V.I.P. Security & Detective Service in Evergreen Park to do background checks to evaluate potential nursing home residents for felonies. A 2009 Tribune investigation determined that state evaluations in which V.I.P. Security took part sometimes missed ex-convicts' violent crimes and downplayed the risk they posed to other nursing home residents.
Under Golden, the state agency also issued grants to nonprofits run by Leon Dingle Jr. Golden is alleged to have had Dingle hire a paid consultant, identified in the indictment only as Individual A. The consultant collected more than $1 million in grant and contract money given to Dingle's groups and the security firm and was supposed to kick back half the money to Golden, the indictment states.
Individual A is described as an associate of Golden and a paid consultant of V.I.P. Security who allegedly paid $433,000 to Golden as part of the scheme, according to the indictment.
Roxanne Bryant Jackson, an attorney, headed up human resources at the state health department when Whitaker and Golden were there. Jackson later was director of V.I.P. Security, which was owned by her brother Bennie Bryant III.
Messages left for Jackson were not returned, nor were messages for Golden's attorney.