Updated: March 5, 2014 12:12PM
SPRINGFIELD — The daughter of President Barack Obama’s former spiritual adviser went on trial Tuesday in a state grant-fraud case that a federal prosecutor said is “about stealing and lying.”
Jeri Wright, daughter of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is accused in an 11-count federal indictment of money-laundering, lying to federal investigators and lying to a grand jury after allegedly participating in a fraud scheme orchestrated by former Country Club Hills Police Chief Regina Evans.
With help from state Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, and former Rep. Marlow Colvin, D-Chicago, Evans and her husband, Ron, secured a $1.25 million state job-training grant geared toward minorities. But state officials and federal prosecutors contend about $900,000 of that wound up going directly into the Evanses’ pockets.
Jeri Wright, 48, a childhood friend of Regina Evans, allegedly pocketed as much as $11,000 of the misspent state money, using it partly to pay a car loan, and allegedly lied to federal authorities and a grand jury when asked about the money.
“This case in two words is about stealing and lying,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Bass told jurors as he began his opening statement in a Springfield courtroom. “It’s about a woman, a woman who chose to help a friend to commit a fraud against the state of Illinois.”
“On 11 different occasions, Jeri Wright chose to commit a crime,” Bass said.
Wright, accompanied in the courtroom by a small group of supporters that did not include her father, was an unwitting victim of Evans’ deceit, her lawyer told jurors when he delivered his opening statements.
“She was lied to. She was deceived, and she was abused by her close friend, who stole $1.25 million of your taxpayer dollars,” defense lawyer John Taylor said. “That’s what this cast is all about. It’s a case of greed. It’s a case of lies. It’s a case of opportunism.”
Taylor also accused the state of poor oversight of the Evanses’ grant, noting how it had been paid upfront without any proof the couple would spend the money as promised.
“How could our state ever let this happen?” Taylor asked.
The prosecution aims to show that Wright, who was unemployed and facing financial struggles, did no work linked to the grant yet cashed approximately $31,000 in tax-funded checks, diverted about $20,000 of that amount to Regina Evans and deposited about $5,700 in her own account. The balance has not been accounted for.
“She did no work on this grant,” Bass said. “She had nothing to do with helping the underprivileged or minority communities under this grant. But she was a friend of Regina’s.”
Evanses, who had designs on refurbishing the New Regal Theatre at 79th Street and Stony Island on the South Side, was in default on $2 million in loans she had and her husband had taken out to buy the dilapidated theater building in 2008 when they applied for the state grant.
When the Evanses obtained the state money, part of it went to pay the mortgage on their theater building, while another $100,000 went to what Bass called a “spending spree” that included home renovations, a trip to Las Vegas and personal car loans.
Regina Evans has pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges and awaits sentencing March 24. Federal prosecutors want her to serve 121 months in prison. Evans also has pleaded guilty to witness tampering, obstruction of justice and a conspiracy charge.
The first witness in the Wright case Tuesday morning was a former deputy director of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Karen Norington-Reaves, who served in the agency between 2009 and 2010 and oversaw the Evanses’ grant.
Norington-Reaves testified that it was clear upon her arrival that Regina Evans “was dodging us” when the agency began asking questions about how she and her husband had spent the state grant funds.
“Things started to smell, to put it nicely,” Norington-Reaves said.
As Bass questioned her, he showed jurors letters written on Evans’ behalf from Trotter and Colvin to help secure the grant and a letter from Trotter in 2010, urging the agency stop any efforts to go after the state funds that had been earmarked to the Evanses’ nonprofit, We Are Our Brother’s Keeper.
That letter from Trotter, she said, “created quite a stir” at the agency, but it proceeded to go after the money when it became clear the funds had not been spent as they were supposed to have been.
During cross-examination by Taylor, who earlier had accused the state of poor oversight, Norington-Reaves said she had not had any dealings with Jeri Wright and acknowledged she was surprised to find the Evanses had received their grant money upfront from the state rather than in pieces, which would have helped ensure they were being compliant with the grant’s terms.
“That was standard practice in the state of Illinois,” Norington-Reaves said. “That was not my understanding of what would be expected in the rest of the world. ... I was stunned.”
Jeri Wright’s father, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, retired as pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ in 2008 and is listed on the church website as “pastor emeritus.”
He was a spiritual adviser to Obama until he became a political liability for him and threatened to derail his 2008 presidential bid.
The former pastor served an important role in Obama’s younger life as a spiritual leader and was the minister who presided at his marriage.
Wright’s sermons also provided the title for Obama’s second book, “Audacity of Hope.”
But during the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama was forced to cut ties with his longtime pastor when videotape surfaced of Wright’s sermons that were regarded as anti-American and anti-Semitic.
The video forced Obama to deliver a speech on race relations in Philadelphia. Obama finally cut all ties with Wright following the pastor’s April 2008 appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, where instead of tamping down his profile and the controversy delivered comments that only enflamed the situation.