The last of five former officials charged with misconduct related to their oversight of Bloomington's city-owned arena pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft on Friday and agreed to pay $20,500 restitution to the city.
Bart Rogers, 50, who served as general manager of what was formerly known as U.S. Cellular Coliseum, was among a group of staff named in more than 100 indictments accusing them of theft, money laundering, tax evasion and other felony charges. The complex scheme laid out by the state involved the alleged theft of more than $750,000 in public funds from operations at the downtown entertainment and sports venue.
In exchange for his plea to theft charges, the state dismissed 14 counts of theft against Rogers.
The state added a new misdemeanor count, accusing Roger’s of transferring $15,000 from CIAM accounts to Ilinois Pro-Sports, owner of a hockey team that played at the Coliseum and where Rogers served as an official.
The resolution of Rogers’ case follows a plea deal last year for Central Illinois Arena Management owner John Y. Butler in which he was received a sentence of 90 days home confinement on a misdemeanor theft charge. Butler paid $430,000 restitution; 44 felony charges, including many with mandatory prison sentences, were dismissed.
BMI Concessions, Butler’s concession company, pleaded guilty to a single count of felony theft as part of the resolution of Butler’s case.
Lawyers for Butler contended their client was a scapegoat for staff who embezzled the funds. The restitution was higher than actual losses of around $300,000, lawyers said, but the money represented “kind of a premium” Butler had to pay to walk away with just a misdemeanor.
A dozen felony charges alleging theft and money laundering were dismissed in May 2019 against co-defendant Kelly Klein. The 60-year-old staff member served as assistant general manager for finance.
Defendants Paul Grazar and Jay Laesch walked away from their plea deals as felons.
Grazar, 53, the former general manager of BMI Concessions, served 30 months probation for conspiring to commit tax evasion. Laesch, BMI’s former director of finance, Jay served a similar probation term for money laundering.
After Rogers’ plea hearing, Assistant State’s Attorney Chris Spanos said the state and the city are satisfied with the outcome of the cases.
While no one went to jail in the cases, the city received a large sum of restitution, said Spanos.
“I wouldn’t call a half-million dollars a slap on the wrist,” said the prosecutor.
When asked if the state is willing to reconsider the felony pleas for Grazar and Laesch, Spanos said, “that's not my call.”
Statement from Rogers
In a 4-page statement issued after the hearing, Rogers maintained his innocence.
The decision to plead guilty, he said, came after “tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees and expenses fighting for my rights.” The time had come, he said, “to put closure on this whole ordeal without going through not one, but two trials.”
Defense lawyer Stephanie Wong commented after the hearing that Rogers' contributions as general manager “put the Coliseum on the map.”
The funds transferred by Rogers to the hockey team account were payment for revenue the team lost when games were moved to accommodate Jason Aldean concerts at the venue. Such repayment is standard in the industry, said Wong.
The fact that charges were previously dismissed three times and dropped a fourth time on Friday “should speak volumes,” said Wong.
The hefty stack of indictments followed a 16-month investigation into CIAM operations by the Illinois State Police after another firm, VenuWorks, was hired to take over the Coliseum in 2016. The new management firm alerted authorities to alleged financial discrepancies related to Butler.
As court proceedings dragged on, the state dropped and refiled charges against some of the defendants. Butler’s legal team and prosecutors sparred for months over the legal relevancy of volumes of records investigators took from a storage unit rented by Butler.
Butler’s favorable plea deal was reached on the second day of his jury trial. The state’s lineup of witnesses included former city employees, including former City Manager David Hales, who faced serious questions from the defense on the city’s oversight of Coliseum operations.
Among the documents the state obtained during its probe was a November 2009 email from former city attorney Todd Grenburg sent to a reporter. The admission of shoddy oversight detailed in the email would surely have proven difficult evidence for the state in its effort to convict Butler of using public funds for CIAM legal expenses without the city's permission.
The email provided by Spanos to WGLT is an acknowledgement the city “has never requested an itemized breakdown of the fees paid by CIAM to the firm of Mueller and Reece.”
Greenburg noted that he, the mayor and Hales were “generally aware" of the reasons for the legal fees.
Butler’s lawyer, Steven Beckett, argued the dispute between Butler and the city over unpaid commissions and other financial losses amounted to a contract dispute more suited for civil court.
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