Nearly three years after criminal charges were filed, the lead defendant in the Coliseum fraud case will face a jury of his peers starting Monday.
John Butler’s trial is expected to last about three weeks. Butler, who owned the company that managed the city-owned arena for about a decade, is accused of a running a multiyear fraud scheme that stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from Bloomington taxpayers.
Butler will stand trial on multiple counts of theft, wire fraud, tax evasion, and other charges. Prosecutors said Wednesday that eight of the charges, including some theft counts, will be dismissed.
The case against Butler is complex—and that’s one reason why it’s taken almost three years to reach trial. Jurors will likely hear complicated interpretations of management contracts and audits and will learn more about what oversight the City of Bloomington staff provided to the arena's finances.
Jury selection, which will begin Monday, also could be a challenge with such a high-profile case. The defense sought unsuccessfully to move the case out of McLean County, citing pretrial publicity.
Butler was one of five managers charged with 111 total criminal counts in September 2017, following a 16-month Illinois State Police investigation that began when a new arena-management company noticed financial discrepancies and alerted the city.
Former concessions general manager Paul Grazar and former concessions finance chief Jay Laesch have pleaded guilty and are expected to testify during Butler’s trial. Charges against former assistant GM for finance Kelly Klein were dismissed. Charges remain pending against former Coliseum general manager Bart Rogers.
Butler was in court Wednesday for a final pre-trial hearing. Over defense objections, Judge William Yoder left the door open for jurors to hear about a paper-shredding truck spotted outside the arena as Butler’s company was preparing to move out. Defense attorney Steve Beckett sought to exclude that, arguing the truck was only there to purge payroll records as a normal course of business.
“My concern is that this does not become a trial of innuendo,” Beckett said.
Yoder also said Wednesday that Butler’s former business partner, Mike Nelson, can testify during the trial. Nelson was bought out of the management company’s ownership and has nothing to do with the case, Beckett argued.
McLean County prosecutor Brad Rigdon said Nelson does have firsthand, personal knowledge that will be relevant to the case. Nelson left the ownership group in 2009, and some of the alleged schemes date as far back as 2007. (Nelson has never been accused of wrongdoing.)
The trial will take place in the McLean County courthouse’s jury assembly room, which has been retrofitted to accommodate social-distancing needs tied to the pandemic.
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