CHICAGO | The U.S. Court of Appeals has upheld the theft conviction of former Lake County Clerk Thomas Philpot.
The appeals court judges issued a ruling this week stating the evidence was strong that Philpot knowingly violated state law when he pocketed thousands in federal dollars as a salary bonus.
The 56-year-old Highland resident is serving an 18-month federal prison term in Milan, Mich. He's scheduled for release July 9, according to the U.S. Department of Corrections website.
Philpot diverted more than $24,000 in federal funds that were earmarked to improve clerk's office's role in the collection and distribution of child support.
State regulations require this money to be paid to county employees who work full time in child support, while elected officials can only take such money as bonuses with approval of the Lake County Council.
Philpot never received such permission, but used his authority as county clerk to, as a federal prosecutor said at trial, "write checks to himself."
He returned the money with interest in 2010 after his bonuses became public knowledge from news accounts and claimed he mistakenly took the money because he didn't understand the intricacies of the law.
The U.S. attorney's office indicted Philpot in 2011 and put him on trial last year.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson argued at trial Philpot, a lawyer and experienced public official, knew it was criminal because he attempted to surreptitiously get council approval for the bonuses in 2008 by hiding his request in an innocuous budget transfer request he had an aide place on the council's agenda.
However, Councilwoman Christine Cid, an opponent of supplemental pay for favored officials and employees, warned another of Philpot's aide that the council had to approve Philpot's bonus openly. Philpot withdrew the request from the council after that warning but continued to take more bonuses.
Philpot's defense lawyers argued unsuccessfully that he couldn't get a fair trial because of pretrial publicity generated by media accounts of the case. The appeals court rejected that argument, stating the stories were factual and appeared more than a year before the trial took place.
Appellate judges also disagreed with defense contentions there was insufficient evidence Philpot knew he was acting illegally because David Saks, a Hammond lawyer and longtime Philpot friend, had said Philpot was within the law. Benson said Philpot withheld crucial information from Saks to obtain a friendly opinion.