HAMMOND | The federal corruption trial of Lake County Coroner Thomas Philpot kicked off Monday to determine whether he knew taking incentive payments as an elected official was wrong.
Thomas R. Philpot, 54, appeared to be taking several notes as prosecutors and defense attorneys made opening statements and began questioning witnesses Monday.
Philpot was indicted in 2011 on three counts of mail fraud and two counts of theft of government funds that allegedly occurred during his time serving as Lake County clerk. He could face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each fraud count and up to 10 years behind bars and a $250,000 fine for the theft counts.
The federal funds stem from child support incentive payments his clerk's office was eligible to receive because it handled IV-D cases, which are child support cases that meet certain criteria including parents who receive public aid and Medicaid. The federal government would reimburse a county clerk's office for a percentage of its expenses incurred through collecting and sending child support payments for IV-D cases.
Philpot does not dispute he took the money. The question jurors need to answer is whether he did so knowing it was wrong.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said between 2004 and 2009, Philpot took about $24,000 in the child support incentive payments that he was not legally allowed to receive without approval from the Lake County Council. While it was OK for his staff and office administrators to receive the money, as an elected official he needed the council's approval.
"How could an elected official possibly think he could write a check to himself with absolutely no oversight?" Benson asked jurors, pointing out that Philpot also had a law degree.
One of Philpot's Chicago attorneys, Theodore Poulos, said Philpot had always acted in good faith -- and at the time did not know what he was doing was illegal.
"The evidence will show that Mr. Philpot never, never intended to defraud anybody," Poulos said. "This is serious business. In a matter of a few short days, Mr. Philpot's life is going to be in your hands. His future is going to be in your hands."
Philpot's defense team previously has claimed he received erroneous written advice from an attorney it was OK to receive the incentive payments and he repaid the money with interest when he found out it had been wrong to do so. That information has not yet been introduced to jurors.
Poulos made an oral motion for a mistrial after jurors were dismissed for the day, objecting to Benson's line of questioning former and current Lake County Council members about the poor state of financial affairs the county budget was in at the time of the alleged offenses. Poulos said it misled the jurors into thinking the alleged acts hurt Lake County's bottom line when, in fact, the money was held in a separate fund.
Benson argued asking each council member witness about the county's financial struggles was relevant because it showed motive as to why Philpot would not have sought permission for the payments from the County Council.
"It never would have happened," Benson said about Philpot's chances of getting approval to receive more money.
Senior Judge James Moody denied the motion, and the trial is scheduled to pick up again at 9 a.m. Tuesday. It is expected to run about five days.