Philpot gets 18 months; former coroner, clerk convicted in August
Post-Tribune staff report February 21, 2013 11:45AM
Former Lake County Coroner and county Clerk Thomas Philpot heads up the sidewalk towards the Federall Courthouse in Hammond for his sentencing hearing on Thursday, February 21, 2013. | Jim Karczewski~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 23, 2013 6:22AM
Yet another Lake County public official will spend time inside a federal prison after U.S. District Judge James Moody sentenced former Lake County Coroner Thomas Philpot Thursday morning to 18 months, along with a $10,000 fine.
Moody rejected Philpot’s request to stay out of prison, although he also declined the government’s request to sentence the longtime Lake County politician to even more time in prison.
“I’ve been crafting sentences for these kinds of people for decades; it doesn’t seem to be working,” Moody said at one point during the hearing.
A federal jury convicted Philpot in August of illegally paying himself $24,703 from a state fund used to give bonuses to county employees who help collect child support payments. Philpot never received permission to do so from the Lake County Council, as is required by state law for elected officials.
Moody dismissed on Tuesday two of the counts against Philpot, although he upheld the remaining three counts of theft and mail fraud.
Philpot had faced a longer sentencing guideline range of one to three years until Moody ruled that Philpot did not use sophisticated means as part of his crime, which lowered the range.
During the hearing at the U.S. District Court in Hammond, Philpot thanked the 30 to 40 supporters who came to the hearing and apologized to his family and the residents of Lake County, although he continued to maintain that he did not know he wasn’t allowed to pay himself from the state fund.
“I should have been more careful,” said Philpot, who wore a dark gray suit and dark patterned tie to the hearing.
His attorney Kerry Connor argued that Philpot did what any public servant should do when he found himself in a questionable legal situation: seek legal opinions from attorneys and then pay back the money after he discovered he was not allowed to take it. She called on John Dull, attorney for the Lake County Board of Commissioners, to testify about how Philpot asked him to look into the case after the Post-Tribune broke news of the scandal in January 2010.
Dull said he met with Philpot after Dull had already researched the matter and concluded that Philpot’s attorney David Saks was wrong when he had told Philpot a few months before that he had complied with the law.
“He was basically quiet; he asked me what I was going to do,” Dull testified of his meeting with Philpot.
He told Connor, when she asked, that no one in the room thought the case would become a criminal matter.
Connor said later during the hearing that Philpot should be rewarded for taking steps to check with both Saks and Dull and then agreeing to pay the money back after he found out he was in the wrong.
To give him a harsh punishment is “sending a message to others that you shouldn’t pay back money, and that’s not right,” she said.
Appeal will be filed
However, under examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson, Dull said even though Philpot paid the money back the next day, he would have had to do so anyway under state law.
Benson claimed this, along with the fact that Philpot had recently announced he was running for sheriff, showed that Philpot had only paid back the money because he had to, not from any selfless act on his part.
The federal prosecutor also noted the amount of money Philpot paid to himself and his highest-level deputies ranged in the thousands of dollars, compared to the $300 to $400 given to the county employees who actually collected the child support payments and made annual salaries around $22,000.
“It’s rather disgusting to see the way that money was split up,” Benson said.
Benson asked Moody to sentence Philpot to more than 18 months in prison partly because of the continued trouble Lake County has with corrupt public officials and the mistrust this creates in the community.
“It destroys people’s confidence when they go to the polls,” he said.
Moody said the only reasons he could find for an educated person like Philpot, who has both medical and legal degrees, to steal from the government were “arrogance and greed.”
Along with the fine and prison sentence, he also ordered Philpot to serve two years of supervision after he is released from prison. Philpot, who asked to be sent to the minimum-security federal camp at Pekin, Ill., is to report to prison on April 3. His attorney Leonard Goodman said he will file a motion asking that Philpot be allowed to stay out on bond, however, pending the outcome of the appeal his attorneys will file.
Connor said the fact that Moody had already acquitted Philpot on two of the original charges would help his appeal on the three other charges.
Philpot, who often fidgeted throughout the hearing and looked at his family after the sentence was read, was doing well with his family’s support, Goodman said.
“I think he feels he’ll be vindicated in the end,” Goodman said.