May 2, 2001
Trial to move back to Urbana, reset for June 5
Staff report and the Associated Press
SPRINGFIELD - A federal judge on Tuesday moved the Omega Trust and Trading trial from Springfield to Urbana and, moments before jury selection was set to start, set the trial date back a month to June 5.
Judge Mike McCuskey indicated at a hearing on Monday he would consider a motion to move the trial now that only four defendants remain. He said the move back to Urbana is better for taxpayers, court staff that would have been required to travel to Springfield and for judges in Springfield who reworked their courtroom arrangements to accommodate the Omega trial, which originally had 19 defendants and required a bigger courtroom than the one in Urbana.
McCuskey said in Urbana he also could help with arrangements for late afternoon dialysis treatments for defendant Michael Kodosky, who said the latest he could start treatments in Springfield was 1:30 p.m. That, McCuskey said, would have limited court time and extended the length of the trial.
Prosecutors objected to the delay, saying they are ready to proceed and already have witnesses with plane tickets to Springfield.
Earlier Tuesday, Phil Haskell, 64, of Mattoon became the 15th defendant to plead guilty to a role in the Omega case. Haskell originally had a change of plea hearing set for Monday, then decided not to plea. At the hearing Tuesday, he first told McCuskey that he's not guilty and asked for a new attorney, then returned after a recess and decided to plead guilty.
Haskell pleaded guilty to a single count of conducting a monetary transaction with proceeds of illegal activity. He stipulated in the agreement he handled between $1 million and $2 million, and prosecutors said they plan to argue at sentencing that Haskell played a "manager" role in Omega.
Haskell changed his mind about entering a new plea four times in the previous 24 hours, before finally pleading guilty just minutes after he proclaimed his innocence and told the judge he wanted to fire his court-appointed attorney, Donald Parkinson.
"His (Parkinson's) only efforts have been to get me to plea bargain with the government," Haskell said. "At my age, the rest of my life may be at stake here, and I am innocent of these charges."
McCuskey ruled that Parkinson is capable, denied the request for a new attorney and took a 15 minute break. When the hearing resumed, Haskell, who faces a maximum prison term of 10 years, agreed to plead guilty.
Haskell acknowledged that in March 1999 he transferred $151,745 from a Mattoon bank account to a Starlite Manufacturing account in Massachusetts for partial payment on a building that housed the now-closed Bluebird Diner on Marshall Avenue. Haskell acknowledged that through personal knowledge, suspicion and indifference to the truth he should have known the funds were proceeds of some form of criminal activity.
Omega was a phony investment program that bilked more than $20 million from more than 10,000 people worldwide by telling investors that a $100 unit in an offshore investment program could yield $5,100 in about nine months. No investor received any return from Omega. Rather, the Omega leaders are accused of using the money for their personal benefit and the benefit of others.
On moving the trial, McCuskey acted on a request by some defense attorneys, most of whom live closer to Urbana than to Springfield.
McCuskey said the move would save taxpayers money because it would reduce the number of participants commuting long distances and staying in hotels.
May 1, 2001
Omega bookkeeper, former police officer and former restaurant owner plead guilty
BY CARL WALWORTH
URBANA - A longtime owner of a popular former west-side restaurant and a former city police officer who now is an area businessman pleaded guilty Monday to what were termed "minimal" roles in the Omega Trust and Trading case.
In between those pleas, Billie Wilson, formerly of the Rockford/Chicago area, pleaded guilty to two counts in what Wilson and prosecutors agree was more than a minimal role. And earlier in the day, Phil Haskell of Mattoon opted not to go ahead with a hearing to change his plea.
No one said for sure why, but hearings today in Springfield were moved ahead to 8 a.m., perhaps to allow time for another opportunity for Haskell to change his plea before jury selection begins.
In between the guilty pleas, defense attorneys for the remaining defendants discussed procedural matters, and a couple said they're likely to ask that the trial be moved back to Urbana. Judge Mike McCuskey moved the trial to Springfield because of a larger courtroom to accommodate 19 defendants. Now the trial will have either four or five defendants, depending on whether Haskell enters a plea.
Wilson pleaded guilty to one count of mail/wire fraud and one count of money laundering conspiracy. Tom McKibben and Bryan Boes each pleaded guilty to a single count of conducting a monetary transaction with proceeds of illegal activity. In all three cases, prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence in the middle to low end of the applicable range.
In each guilty plea, defendants and the government stipulate an amount of illegally obtained money handled that was "reasonably foreseeable."
Boes, 34, has the lowest amount ($100,000 to $200,000) of any of those who have pleaded guilty so far. Boes acknowledged that he now knows the $25,000 check from his business partner Jeffrey Schnibben's law office trust account that paid the franchise fee for a Jimmy John's shop came from money obtained illegally. "I should have asked questions," Boes said, acknowledging what prosecutors call "an indifference to the truth."
Boes said in February 1999 when the transaction occurred he didn't know the money came from Clyde Hood, the Mattoon man who has pleaded guilty to having an organizing role in the phony investment program called Omega, instead using millions of dollars for the benefit of himself and others.
Boes' sentencing is set for Oct. 26. The maximum prison sentence is 10 years, but Boes is unlikely to qualify for anywhere near the maximum when the sentencing guidelines are applied.
McKibben, 64, stipulated the amount of money involved that was reasonably foreseeable is between $600,000 and $1 million, primarily for the development of the now-closed Bluebird Diner and a bakery along Marshall Avenue. McKibben acknowledged that he received $15,000 cash from Hood to pay John and Debbie Behl to purchase property at 3300 Marshall Ave. The diner opened in mid-1999 and closed last fall.
Prior to operating the Bluebird, McKibben and his wife, Jacqui, "retired" in 1995 after 29 years in the restaurant business, having successfully operated Tomaso's restaurant on Marshall Avenue.
McKibben told McCuskey he knew Hood since about age 13, and that Hood "always seemed to be around people who had money." But on questioning from McCuskey, McKibben agreed that he knew, or should have known, that the $600,000-plus received for the new restaurant wasn't money Hood earned.
McKibben's sentencing is set for Oct. 26.
Wilson, 69, agreed he handled between $6 million and $10 million from 1994 to 2000. He's accused of being the top aide and record keeper for Hood and the Omega operation.
Wilson acknowledged that he used some Omega funds for personal uses, including a Lincoln Navigator sport utility vehicle, and that Hood paid rent for a residence in Louisville, Ky.
Omega was a program in which investors were told to expect a $5,100 return in about nine months on a $100 investment in a high-yield, offshore bank program.
"I kept the records for it, yes," Wilson said of his role. He said he expected Omega investors to be paid. "Toward the end I started getting concerned about it," Wilson said.
On questioning from McCuskey, he conceded that months and then years went by without any investor receiving a return, and that he knew he was indicted last August but didn't turn himself in to authorities until U.S. marshals found him in North Carolina in January.
The government plans to argue at sentencing, which is set for Oct. 26, that Wilson was a manager or supervisor of an activity with five or more participants. Wilson's attorney, James Elmore of Springfield, said Wilson agrees he had more than a "minimal" role but isn't conceding the level sought by prosecutors.
The maximum prison term for Wilson is 25 years.
In another matter, the judge agreed that a motion on Boes' behalf for sanctions against the city of Mattoon in regard to material not turned over in the "discovery" process is moot because of Boes' guilty plea.
April 30, 2001
Victims get some satisfaction from admissions, pending trial
By The Associated Press
Desperate for a lucky break, Joan Kleppe gave her last $200 to two strangers she bumped into at a suburban copy shop because she thought they might be telling the truth: A minister named Clyde Hood could invest her money in a bank overseas and turn it into $10,000 in nine months.
"I really needed the money," Kleppe said. "Easy money is hard to resist when you're in need. If I could spend $100 just to get an extra $50 back, I would have done that."
Five years later, the 75-year old concert trombonist from Schaumburg still has a photocopy of the $200 check she wrote Omega Trust & Trading that August night and the contract promising her a speedy return of 50 times her investment.
The contract turned out to be worthless, leaving Kleppe among thousands of victims worldwide awaiting justice this week when the eclectic gang of alleged con artists behind Omega go on trial for a scheme the government says took in more than $20 million.
Hood was not a minister. Nor was he a cunning international financier as other customers were led to believe. He's a retired electrician who dodged police for six years and might have lasted longer if he and his partners had not raised suspicions in the rural town of Mattoon by showing off their inexplicable sudden wealth.
A paper trail of bank deposits and lavish purchases helped federal prosecutors indict 19 people, including Hood and his wife, on charges including mail and wire fraud, money laundering and tax evasion.
Eleven, including the Hoods, have pleaded guilty in recent weeks and agreed to testify for the prosecution. At least two more are expected to plead guilty today, the day before jury selection begins in Springfield for the trial of the remaining defendants.
"They should all go to jail," Kleppe said.
For many of Omega's investors, the victimization is not as much about the money as it is about the humiliation of banking their hopes on an investment that never existed. Most investors will not give their names to reporters, but willingly told stories about how Omega salespeople exploited their religious beliefs, anti-government sympathies or financial desperation.
Even after the 19 alleged conspirators were arrested, some people who sent Omega money believed the offshore bank deal was going to pay off and bought into tales of a conspiracy by the U.S. government to prevent them from getting their riches.
Reams of documents filed by federal prosecutors show how Omega partners never invested customers' money, but instead deposited it in their own bank accounts and bought things for themselves and their businesses.
Court records allege Hood kept impatient investors at bay with lie after lie, delivered on a hot line where they could hear a recording explaining his efforts to complete the big deal. Hood once traveled to Switzerland and called some investors to make his stories seem more authentic.
While his guilty plea offered some satisfaction to victims such as Kleppe, she said what she really needs is to get some of her money back. Hood's attorney, Doug McNabb of Houston, said his remorseful client wants that, too.
As part of their plea agreements, the defendants have agreed not to challenge the government's seizure of property they bought with Omega funds. McNabb said Hood agreed to that because he wants the government to quickly follow through on its stated goal of getting victims' money back.
"Clyde feels terrible about what took place," McNabb said. "He really is a nice guy. There are a whole host of folks out there who still support him. He has a good heart. He just made bad judgments and decisions."