CROWN POINT | A defense lawyer is seeking to have fraud charges dismissed against Lake County Coroner Thomas Philpot on the eve of his federal trial.
Munster trial lawyer Theodore Poulos argues in legal papers filed late this week in U.S. District Court that the government's case against Philpot is based on false or misleading evidence.
Poulos said he will present evidence that although it is undisputed Philpot paid himself $24,000 in bonuses from 2004 to 2009 even though the Lake County Council never approved the payments, "these facts do not add up to criminal fraud."
Mary Hatton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office, which indicted Philpot in September and will seek his conviction on four felony counts, declined to comment on the defense arguments.
Philpot is pleading not guilty to charges he illegally enriched himself from federal grants he controlled between 2004 and 2009 when he was county clerk. The grant money was earmarked by the state to assist local government employees enforcing the collection of court-ordered child support payments.
The government alleges Philpot paid a small share of this incentive money to the deputies who did almost all the support collection work in his office.
Poulos argues that if the judge refuses to dismiss the charges, the government should be barred from arguing Philpot is guilty because he paid the lion's share of the money to himself.
"Any evidence relating to whether Philpot or his deputies did sufficient work to earn their bonuses is totally irrelevant and therefore should be excluded at trial. The only conceivable purpose for this evidence is to make Philpot appear greedy in the eyes of the jury ... and would deny him his right to a fair trial," Poulos writes.
Poulos argues he can present evidence Philpot's close advisers told him in 2004 he was entitled to pay himself and other deputy clerks bonuses from child support incentives, based on assurances from the Indiana Department of Public Welfare, Child Support Division, which distributes the incentives.
However, state officials took a different position about the propriety of Philpot's bonuses and he declined to give himself one in 2007. Philpot resumed paying himself the bonuses in 2009 after David Saks, his county-appointed legal counsel, advised him it was legal.
Philpot finally returned all the bonuses with interest in 2010 when media reports about them prompted him to seek a second legal opinion from County Attorney John Dull, who told him the bonuses were improper because the County Council hadn't voted to approve them.
Poulos argues Philpot couldn't have known about the "obscure" law Dull found after hours of legal research or that the council hadn't acted on the clerk's bonuses, since the county auditor had signed the paperwork and Philpot wasn't present at council meetings.
"A fair presentation of the evidence in this case supports Philpot's public statements that, at worst, he made an honest mistake," Poulos writes.