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Thursday, March 6, 2014 12:01 am

Case reveals lax oversight

Person on trial had minor role in state cash caper

The case against Jeri Wright, daughter of President Barack Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright, is simple, prosecutors say.

“This case, in two words, is about stealing and lying,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Bass told a jury during opening statements Tuesday in the federal courthouse in Springfield.

It is also about enabling. No money could have been stolen if the state had not handed it over to people who didn’t deserve it, a point not lost on the defense.

“You will ask yourself: How could our state ever let this happen?” defense attorney John Taylor told jurors.

Wright was a bit player, prosecutors say, in a scheme that has resulted in several guilty pleas. The case revolves around a crooked former Chicago cop named Regina Evans who has pleaded guilty to fraud, witness tampering, obstruction of justice and conspiracy.

This was a laughably flimsy caper. Evans started up a nonprofit group called We Are Our Brother’s Keeper that landed a $1.25 million grant from the state aimed at teaching minorities electrical and masonry skills while fixing up the dilapidated Regal Theater in Chicago, which Evans and her husband owned. Evans landed the grant with the help of state Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, and former Rep. Marlow Colvin, D-Chicago, who both authored recommendation letters to the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity urging that the state – without requiring a track record, surety bond or nickel of matching funds – give more than $1 million to a nonprofit with no experience in the building trades.

There was scant attention to detail. The grant application stated that the money would train 40 minorities in masonry and electrical work so that they could become union apprentices. The two legislators in their letters talked about spending more than $1 million in public money to train stagehands.

Evans was in debt and had fallen behind on the theater’s mortgage. Nonetheless, the state approved the grant three months after Trotter and Colvin lauded the program, and Evans burned through more than $900,000 before giving back $338,000 the following year. The state caught onto the scam less than two weeks after giving Evans the money, thanks to a DCEO employee who spotted a brief story in the Sun-Times noting that a bank was foreclosing on the Regal.

“That’s how it came to my desk,” testified Thadius Elliott, a former DCEO auditor tasked with figuring out whether the state was getting its money’s worth.

Besides catching up on the Regal mortgage, Evans and her husband, Ronald, who has pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering, gave some money to friends and associates, including Wright, who stands accused of taking a paltry sum, as little as $5,700. Evans and her husband also vacationed in Las Vegas and spent $30,000 remodeling their basement, with features that included a wet bar, sauna, bedroom, bathroom and floors made of hardwood and marble.

It was a two-year grant. The state could have at least limited its losses if it had made a series of payments based on documented performance instead of giving Evans the money all at once.

“That was the standard practice in the state of Illinois,” testified Karen Norington-Reaves, a former DCEO deputy director who started work less than two months after Evans got the lump-sum check. “That is not my understanding of what would be acceptable in the rest of the world. … I was stunned.”

As DCEO closed in, demanding documentation for expenditures and threatening to rescind the grant, Sen. Trotter intervened, suggesting that the department provide “technical assistance” to Evans, who, after retiring as a Chicago cop, became chief of the Country Club Hills Police Department, where she hired her husband.

“I am concerned because We Are Our Brother’s Keeper is having a measurable positive impact throughout the community, and I am impressed with the foresight and insight that Ms. Evans has shown in creating a program with such depth,” Trotter wrote in a letter to the director of DCEO. “Both Ms. Evans and her husband Ronald Evans are police officers who volunteer their time and talents to this excellent program.”

By then, it was too late. Evans had missed too many appointments with DCEO officials and too often failed to produce required documentation. Elliott, the auditor, lived six blocks from the Regal and visited often to check out We Are Our Brother’s Keeper and the job training program.

“When I went out to check on the organization, it was always closed,” Elliott testified.

Prosecutors say that no one received any job training. According to paperwork submitted to the state by We Are Our Brother’s Keeper, Wright, a lifelong friend of Evans, was a program coordinator charged with such tasks as establishing a mentoring program and setting up field trips to construction sites. She is charged with money laundering for allegedly cashing checks made out to her from the nonprofit group’s account, then giving most of the money back to Evans. She is also charged with making false statements to federal agents and a grand jury about the alleged money laundering.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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