Philpot found guilty on all counts
By Carole Carlson email@example.com/648-3154 August 24, 2012 12:36PM
Lake County Coroner Thomas Philpot (center) leaves the Federal Courthouse in Hammond, Ind. after being found guilty on all counts Friday August 24, 2012. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 26, 2012 6:06AM
HAMMOND — Lake County Coroner Thomas Philpot sat impassively Friday afternoon as a federal court official rattled off five guilty counts, convicting him of three counts of mail fraud and two theft counts for taking bonuses from a federal child support fund while he served as Lake County clerk.
A career Lake County politician, who’s served three terms as coroner and two as county clerk, Philpot now faces prison and hefty fines.
The jury of seven women and five men deliberated about three hours before reaching the guilty verdicts in the U.S. District Courtroom of Judge James Moody.
The jury found that Philpot took more than $24,000 in bonuses from the child support fund he supervised as county clerk. A state law forbids elected officials from enriching their salaries with supplemental pay. The government successfully argued that Philpot willfully committed the crimes, despite defense arguments that the state law was “obscure” and Philpot was unaware of it.
Philpot’s conviction means he must step down as coroner and a Democratic caucus will meet to name a new coroner. The most likely candidate to replace Philpot is Merrilee Frey, of Hobart, the Democratic coroner nominee on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. Philpot’s term runs through the end of 2013.
Philpot offered no comment while walking out of the courthouse, His attorney Ted Poulos of Munster said he was stunned. “We’re shocked and very disappointed in this verdict. I seriously question whether any elected official in this district can get a fair trial.”
Poulos said it was too early to say if an appeal will be filed. No sentencing date has been set yet. Philpot remains free on bond. He faces up to 25 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each mail fraud count and up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each theft count.
Members of the jury declined to comment on their verdict.
A 2010 Post-Tribune investigation by reporter Andy Grimm led the government to indict Philpot last year. After the first newspaper article detailed how Philpot made $14,000 in supplemental pay in 2009 at a time when countywide budget cuts slashed four full-time positions from the clerk’s office and $423,000 from its budget, Philpot said other clerks before him had also taken the money.
But the newspaper’s investigation showed only Philpot had ever tapped into the child support bonus money intended to give county clerks and prosecutors a percentage of money collected from delinquent support payments.
“Nobody’s stealing,” Philpot told the newspaper. “It’s a nonstory.”
About a week later, Philpot paid back $30,000 in bonus pay with interest on the money he received from 2004 to 2009, after county attorney John Dull told him he needed County Council approval to take the bonus pay. Philpot said he relied on an opinion his clerk’s office attorney David Saks issued in 2008 telling him he was in compliance with the law.
By 2010, Philpot had switched offices and was serving as county coroner and had announced a run for county sheriff in the May 2010 primary.
In his closing argument, U.S. Assistant Attorney Philip Benson described Philpot as an educated man who holds medical and law degrees, and who’s familiar with Lake County’s government system.
“The evidence shows from 2004 to 2009, Lake County taxpayers trusted Mr. Philpot ... And in return he stole money from them.”
Benson played up Philpot’s background as a lawyer, showing the jury photographs of state statute books in his office and noting that he practiced law while serving as clerk.
“We all know when something isn’t right. You are allowed to connect the dots,” Benson told the jury.
In testimony earlier in the week, Lake County Councilwoman Christine Cid said she became concerned when she noticed an item on the council agenda that called for a transfer in the clerk’s office into a supplemental pay category in November 2008. When Cid began questioning the legality of an elected official taking bonus pay, the transfer was withdrawn.
Philpot’s attorney, Leonard Goodman, argued it was a “routine” transfer, one of dozens made in county offices.
Benson, on a screen, showed the transfer amount to the jury. The $22,177 matched the child support supplemental pay for Philpot and other employees.
Goodman cited several junctures where he said Philpot acted in “good faith” by seeking legal advice, even though it turned out to be incorrect.
“There’s no evidence of Tom being sneaky,” he said.