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Ex-Coliseum Manager To Pay $450K Restitution In Plea Deal; 34 Counts Dismissed

John and Steve
Lewis Marien
The Pantagraph (Pool)
John Butler, right, owned the company that managed the city-owned downtown arena for its first decade.

Nearly three years after being indicted, the lead defendant in the Coliseum fraud case agreed Tuesday to pay more than $430,000 in restitution to the City of Bloomington after pleading guilty to a single misdemeanor theft charge.

John Butler will serve a three-month jail sentence under home confinement, with an ankle bracelet. As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors dismissed the 34 remaining criminal counts against Butler that, if convicted, could have sent him to prison for decades.

“Four years is long enough, and it is time to move on,” Butler said.

Tuesday’s plea means the end is near for one of the most complex white-collar criminal cases in McLean County history. Butler and four co-defendants were accused of taking advantage of lax city oversight at the arena to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars over about a decade.

Initially, Butler faced 44 criminal counts. On Tuesday, he left the courthouse guilty of only one misdemeanor. His concessions company, BMI, pleaded guilty to one count of felony theft.

Addressing the media after his plea, Butler said he “poured his heart and soul into managing the Coliseum” from 2006 to 2016. He said his “only regret” is that the city should have treated the situation as a civil dispute and not a criminal matter. He pointed the finger at two former employees who have pleaded guilty in the case as the ones who stole money.

“In pleading to a misdemeanor charge, I am doing so not because I personally took money from the Coliseum, but because people who I hired did ... even though I did not know it was happening, I should have known. The buck stops with me. Ultimately, I owed a duty to the taxpayers, and I dropped the ball," Butler said.

Butler Plea Agreement by Ryan Denham on Scribd

Butler must pay $430,230 in restitution to the city, and another $19,770 to the Illinois Department of Revenue. His attorney told WGLT “he’s from a family that’s supported him and would help him meet that obligation.”

Butler was indicted in 2017 by then-McLean County State’s Attorney Jason Chambers, who is now a judge. Current State’s Attorney Don Knapp said the plea agreement means Butler “admitted to criminal culpability” and “acknowledged the state could prove he stole a significant amount of taxpayer assets” from the city-owned facility that is now called Grossinger Motors Arena.

“John Butler is a convicted thief who has returned $450,000 to the taxpayers of Bloomington,” Knapp said in a statement. praising the work of prosecutors Brad Rigdon and Chris Spanos, and State Police and Department of Revenue investigators.

“But for (their) efforts … I can confidently say the taxpayers of the City of Bloomington would not have recouped a dime of the money at issue in this matter,” Knapp said.

PDF: Read Knapp's full statement

Cash skimming

Butler and the four other defendants were indicted in September 2017, following a 16-month State Police investigation that began when a new arena management company—Butler’s successor—noticed financial discrepancies and alerted the city.

His two guilty pleas relate only to cash skimming, allegedly done by two of Butler’s employees at his direction. Around $102,571 in BMI’s cash—from concession sales—was taken between January 2013 and March 2016. That meant the city never got its commission (about $14,000) from those sales, prosecutors said.

Other charges against Butler, including wire fraud and tax evasion, were dismissed.

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner was pleased with the resolution of the case.

“Sometimes justice does prevail,” he said.

But Renner was skeptical that $430,230 was all that was taken from the city.

“We will probably never really know. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, I’m sure,” Renner said.

Bloomington City Manager Tim Gleason, who was not hired until after Butler already was gone from the downtown arena, said the agreement yielded a “significant financial recovery.”

“Since the tenure of Butler’s management of the arena ended, the city has put in place new oversight practices and procedures,” Gleason said Tuesday. “This includes hiring a contract administrator whose duties specifically include overseeing arena management and conducting monthly reviews of the arena’s finances. Representatives of the city’s finance department also participate in these monthly meetings.”

Avoiding a lengthy trial

Butler was about to go on trial two weeks ago—jury selection had begun—when the proceedings were abruptly halted. That suggested a plea deal was near, and it kept off the witness stand any former Bloomington officials who would’ve had to explain the city’s lax oversight of arena finances. It also saved both the prosecution and defense from having to clearly explain such a complex, high-profile case to jurors.

Knapp acknowledged the “odd” timing of the plea agreement.

“Mr. Butler refused to accept any personal criminal culpability at that time, resulting in an end to any plea discussions on behalf of the state,” Knapp said. “Negotiations resumed when it became clear that he had changed course.”

Butler’s lead attorney, Steve Beckett, said “the state’s attorney’s office had some sort of change of heart.”

“The state’s attorney’s office would have nothing to do with us until after the first day of trial, when we had a lengthy day of jury selection,” Beckett said. “And you could see in that jury selection … that the animus about this arena was still out there in the community, which gave me great concern about whether or not we could get a fair trial. So my advice to John was to accept this plea negotiation.”

The settlement also will resolve civil claims between Butler and the City of Bloomington. Butler’s Central Illinois Arena Management (CIAM) sued the city in 2017, just months after the criminal charges were filed. Butler claimed he was owed $67,175 in unpaid commissions.

A few months later, the city countersued Butler and his companies, alleging breach of contract, civil conspiracy, fraud, and breach of fiduciary duty. The Bloomington City Council on Monday voted to authorize its attorneys to execute a release and dismissal of the claims in the lawsuit.

Former arena concessions general manager Paul Grazar and former concessions finance chief Jay Laesch have pleaded guilty and were 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. It’s unclear what Tuesday’s developments mean for Rogers. A message left with his defense attorney, Stephanie Wong, was not immediately returned Tuesday.

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Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.