Eric Whitaker is one of Barack Obama’s closest friends, a doctor with degrees from Harvard and the University of Chicago, and a member of the board of trustees of Grinnell College, the elite liberal arts school in Iowa. On Tuesday, federal prosecutors asked that “hostile witness in a fraud trial” be added to Whitaker’s list of honorifics, as well.
Prosecutors say Whitaker, who is so close to the Obamas that he said it felt like “my extended family is leaving town” after the 2008 presidential election, is being uncooperative in the fraud trial of businessman Leon Dingle. The Chicago businessman stands accused of pocketing more than $3 million in grants he got from Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s Illinois Department of Public Health (DPH) to educate minority populations in Chicago about diseases like AIDS, breast cancer, and cervical cancer. Instead the money allegedly was spent on luxury cars and a yacht club membership, among other things. The result is that Dingle now faces a 23-count federal indictment. He has pleaded not guilty.
Although prosecutors are seeking to have Whitaker labeled as a hostile witness, he has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the case. He did lead the DPH from 2003 to 2007, and oversaw the awarding of grants to Dingle, and Whitaker’s chief of staff at the department, Quinshaunta “Quin” Golden, pleaded guilty in August to taking kickbacks from a consultant hired by Dingle and is facing more than 10 years in jail. Golden, who directed a request for comment from The Daily Beast to her attorney, not only worked for Whitaker at the DPH but then followed him to his next job at the University of Chicago Medical Center, where she earned $317,409 a year as his top aide. Whitaker also attended a concert and dinner on Dingle’s dime at the Flamingo in Las Vegas, and the indicted businessman spent $745 so Whitaker could get an award from the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the community-development nonprofit founded by Rev. Jesse Jackson.
But one of the main reasons prosecutors are asking the Obama friend to be named a hostile witness is that the married father of two is refusing to answer questions about his personal relationship with Golden, in particular whether they had sex. In a court filing asking to be allowed to treat him as a hostile witness, prosecutors also noted both Whitaker’s relationship with Dingle and that he has refused to meet with them for months. Incidentally, Whitaker isn’t the only person involved in the case with whom Golden, the niece of Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) and wife of a top state lottery official, may have had a sexual relationship. Prosecutors claim that in 2007, a Dingle employee walked in on the businessman and Golden in “what appeared to be a sexual encounter.” Prosecutors say the two then promised that employee a $10,000 bonus, which was promptly paid.
That federal prosecutors are seeking to have one of Obama’s best friends labeled as a hostile witness in a fraud trial is bound to create awkwardness for the White House, which declined to comment for this story. Whitaker is not only a close friend of the president and the first lady but of senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, as well. Whitaker has played golf with the president on his two most recent vacations in Martha’s Vineyard and Hawaii, respectively, and his would be the most serious scandal to envelop the Obamas’ tight social circle since the 2008 election.
Whitaker also had Obama partly to thank for his job with the DPH. After Blagojevich was elected Illinois governor in 2002, he used political fixer Tony Rezko to help vet appointees to state government jobs. In a 2008 interview, Obama left unclear whether he, then a state senator, contacted Rezko or Rezko contacted him about Whitaker. Regardless, Obama, who met Whitaker playing pickup basketball at Harvard, said he “thought [Whitaker] was outstanding” and “gave him a glowing recommendation.” Both Rezko and Blagojevich have since been convicted on unrelated federal corruption charges. Obama’s ties to Rezko came under heavy scrutiny in the 2008 campaign, but the president insisted that the only time he ever spoke to him was about Whitaker’s 2003 appointment.
Marj Halperin, a spokeswoman for Whitaker, declined to comment and directed The Daily Beast to a statement issued last month: “This is Leon Dingle’s trial. Dr. Whitaker is not a party to the case, but he has been cooperative, and he’s been told he could potentially be called as a witness. Because of this potential of serving as a witness, it would be inappropriate to share any further details through the media.”