HAMMOND | A state representative and former clerk employee gave conflicting testimony Tuesday as to how controversial incentive payments came to be during the Lake County coroner's tenure as clerk.
It was the second day of Coroner Thomas Philpot's fraud and theft trial in Hammond federal court, where he is facing up to several decades in prison and more than $500,000 in fines if convicted.
Prosecutors allege Philpot, 54, schemed to give himself about $24,000 in federal child support incentive payments between 2004 and 2009 when he held the office of Lake County clerk. According to state statute, an elected official needs the approval of the Lake County Council to increase his or her pay.
The contested issue is not whether Philpot received the payments, but whether he knew it was illegal to do so.
State Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point, testified for about two hours about her time as director of child support division during Philpot's administration. Her testimony about how the incentive payments came to be during his term did not line up with that of Sandi Radoja, Philpot's former executive chief deputy clerk and second in command.
According to VanDenburgh, who worked in the clerk's office between 1990 and 2008, the topic of incentive payments came up about six to eight months into Philpot's term in 2004.
"I had received a phone call from Sandi Radoja asking me to come down to the main office, which I did," VanDenburgh said. "Tom was sitting at his desk very relaxed, and he said, 'Tell me about this IV-D incentive program.'"
VanDenburgh, who had prepared the monthly reimbursement reports for the previous clerk, said she did not know of any former clerk who received the incentive payments and that it was generally received by employees of the child support division.
"Probably the thing that most stands out for me was when Tom said, 'Aren't we all child support?" she said. "I said, 'No.'"
VanDenburgh said she recommended they call the state to see whether they could use the funds for those not directly involved with child support, and that she was with Radoja when Radoja spoke with a state employee about whether the payments could be issued in a lump bonus sum or if it had to be distributed within normal pay periods.
Bonuses were approved and paid for 2004 through 2006, but in 2007 VanDenburgh received an email from a state employee stating they would not be reimbursing administrators or those peripheral staff because "it would not look good to federal auditors."
When one of Philpot's Chicago attorneys, Theodore Poulos, questioned VanDenburgh about how she prepared the reports each year, she said that for the year the reimbursement was denied she had not attached the detailed explanation of the formula used to calculate the bonuses that she had in previous years.
Radoja testified she did not approach VanDenburgh, but that VanDenburgh had approached her to tell her about the incentive payments.
"Shelli came into my office and made me aware of it," said Radoja, who had no prior experience in the clerk's office. "I didn't know about IV-D, but she made me aware of this incentive fund ... she said it was available to employees who worked for child support and those who worked on it indirectly."
Radoja said she was excited to learn they could use the money to supplement their pay, and that she shared the information with Philpot.
She testified his response was, "Sounds good, make sure it's legal."
Philpot's defense team tried to introduce into evidence a letter that David Saks, an attorney hired by the Lake County Council to give legal advice to the clerk's office, had written stating it was OK for Philpot to receive the incentive benefits.
But Senior Judge James Moody would not allow it through Radoja's testimony, saying it would be hearsay because Radoja had not seen Philpot read the letter.
The trial continues at 9 a.m Wednesday in Moody's courtroom.