HAMMOND | A Lake County state legislator and a former deputy county clerk could provide crucial evidence on how determined County Coroner Thomas Philpot was in grasping federal money.
State Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point, said Friday she has been subpoenaed to testify in Philpot's fraud trial, which is set for Monday morning in U.S. District Court in Hammond. She served as Philpot's director of child support collections in the county clerk's office before leaving to become a legislator five years ago.
Sandi Radoja, who was Philpot's second-in-command as chief deputy clerk, is identified in a recent court filing as another potential witness. She declined to comment Friday.
Philpot is pleading not guilty to fraud and theft charges alleging he illegally paid himself $24,000 in salary bonuses over five years when he was county clerk. The money came from federal incentive funds channeled through state government to the clerk to reimburse the expense of Philpot's employees working to enforce the collection of court-ordered child support payments.
His defense lawyer, Theodore Poulos, of Munster, argues Philpot made an honest mistake in accepting the money because of bad advice from those around him.
Poulos states in court papers the so-called IV-D money in question first came to Philpot's attention through VanDenburgh and Radoja in 2004 when he first took office as clerk.
IV-D is the title of the U.S. Social Security Act dealing with child support.
Poulos cites an FBI report in the case stating, "VanDenburgh advised Radoja that IV-D funds were available for bonuses. VanDenburgh further advises that 'they' were entitled to this money."
VanDenburgh said Friday she didn't initiate any talk about using IV-D money for bonuses because the money was used by past clerks only to buy equipment or pay employees who exclusively work in child support. She said Philpot argued forcefully for a different use.
"I was called down to the office and asked about the incentive money. They were trying to tell me ... 'Aren't we all child support?' That was Philpot. I said no. He was like, 'Well I'm your boss, right? (Radoja) is your boss.' They were really pressuring me to say it could be used for that. I did not feel comfortable," VanDenburgh said.
Nevertheless, VanDenburgh said Radoja spoke with a state child support representative who didn't forbid the practice, and bonuses were paid several months later.
Court papers indicate VanDenburgh sent Radoja a memo in March 2007 warning that a new state child support review was questioning the propriety of the bonuses.
It states in part, "This was not an issue in the past, so I contacted (a state official) who processes our monthly claims. She has indicated to me that she is not comfortable reimbursing for other personnel since this would not look good to a federal auditor. In the past, our monthly report was processed by another individual who did not have a problem with the reimbursement."
Poulos argues in a trial brief the email isn't a reference to Philpot's bonuses but rather those paid to "peripheral administrative staff."