April 27, 2001
Mattoon lawyer 11th defendant to plead guilty
BY CARL WALWORTH
URBANA - A Mattoon lawyer on Thursday became the 11th person to plead guilty to a role in the Omega Trust and Trading federal criminal case, and two more of the 19 defendants plan to enter a guilty plea on Monday.
A prosecutor on Thursday said negotiations are ongoing with others, so there may be additional pleas set on Monday before jury selection is set to begin on Tuesday.
Jeff Schnibben, 38, pleaded guilty to a single count of conducting a monetary transaction with proceeds of illegal activity. Two other counts are to be dropped at sentencing.
Schnibben, formerly associated with the Midtown firm of Dilsaver and Nelson but now based out of his home, agreed to surrender his law license within 10 days.
Schnibben acknowledged that on Feb. 8, 1999, he wrote a $25,000 check from his law office trust account to pay the franchise fee to Jimmy John's for a sandwich shop he co-owns. The plea says that Schnibben, through a combination of personal knowledge, suspicion and indifference to the truth, wrote the check knowing that it represented proceeds from some form of illegal activity.
On questioning from Judge Mike McCuskey, Schnibben said that sometime prior to February 1999, Clyde D. Hood, who earlier this month pleaded guilty to having an "organizing" role in the investment scheme called Omega, brought a $175,000 cashier's check to his law office to purchase the Young Radiator property in Midtown. Subsequent soil tests revealed soil contamination at the Young site and stopped the sale of the property on 14th Street between Richmond and Broadway avenues.
Hood then directed Schnibben to write a $100,000 check to Chris Engel, another Omega co-conspirator. When the account had $25,000 left, Hood apparently authorized use of the money for the franchise fee.
"I did not know it was Omega money," Schnibben told McCuskey. "Based on past dealings with Mr. Hood, I should have known it was some sort of illegal activity."
Schnibben's attorney, J. William Roberts of Springfield, said after the hearing that Schnibben is making arrangements to pay back the $25,000. Roberts said the matter should have no impact on the operation of Jimmy John's shops co-owned by Schnibben, including the one in Mattoon.
In the agreement, Schnibben stipulates the amount of illegally obtained money he handled that was "reasonably foreseeable" is between $350,000 and $600,000. Prosecutors agree Schnibben had a "minimal role," which helps him at sentencing. Working against Schnibben, however, is a stipulation that he abused a position of trust or used a special skill.
The maximum sentence for the offense is 10 years in prison and a fine of up to twice the amount of laundered funds. Schnibben likely won't be eligible for the maximum based on sentencing guidelines. Prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence in the low to middle end of the applicable guideline. Prosecutors also agree that if Schnibben falls in one of the lower sentencing brackets that they wouldn't oppose assignment to a halfway house, community facility or home detention, though Schnibben isn't guaranteed any of those options at this point.
Like others who entered guilty pleas, Schnibben agreed to cooperate with the ongoing investigation and testify at trial. Assisting prosecutors could help at sentencing, which is set for Sept. 7.
Hearings are set for Monday in which defendants Phillip Haskell and Tom McKibben are expected to enter a guilty plea. Other plea agreements may be added to that docket.
Including Schnibben's plea, 11 of 19 defendants have agreed to some role in the Omega case.
Omega is described as a fraudulent international investment scheme in which investors were told to expect a $5,100 return on a $100 investment in about nine months. More than 10,000 people lost at least $20 million, records show.
No one received any return from Omega. Instead, the Mattoon-based operation headed by Hood diverted the money for other uses, including interest-free home mortgages, business developments and personal uses.
Jury selection for the Omega trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Springfield.