BLOOMINGTON — After Central Illinois Arena Management owner John Y. Butler pleaded not guilty Friday to 44 criminal charges related to his firm's management of the city-owned arena, his attorney said the case is about “business and business practices.”
"To have these indictments come down and the way things have been handled, you can see from how the discovery was handled, there is a big master plan," said Urbana lawyer Steven Beckett, who is representing Butler.
Butler and four other CIAM managers were arrested Monday on 111 charges that accuse them of bilking the city out of more than $1.1 million while they managed the former U.S. Cellular Coliseum.
The others charged are: Bart Rogers, CIAM general manager; and CIAM employees Jay C. Laesch, Paul E. Grazar and Kelly W. Klein.
"I ordinarily don't walk out of court with boxes of discovery (materials)," said Beckett, referring to boxes filled with the state's evidence that were handed out in court to the five defendants after their arraignment in a crowded courtroom.
First Assistant State's Attorney Adam Ghrist said the boxes contained more than "2,000 exhibits."
“I haven't been in my box yet so I really don't know what I have," said Beckett. "I shouldn't complain. The earlier you get discovery the faster you can get to work on your case."
Beckett commented outside of the McLean County Law and Justice Center after the five defendants entered not guilty pleas to charges that allege they began skimming money in November 2007 and continued until three days before CIAM's 10-year contract with the city expired on March 31, 2016.
The five face various charges, including theft of government funds, money laundering, tax evasion, tax fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit tax evasion.
Beckett described the five defendants as “good people ...who had done the best they could at a job where they thought it was very, very important to have that arena here in town and have that arena be successful.”
All five waived a formal reading of the charges contained in indictments filed against them and requested jury trials.
The cases were assigned to Judge Scott Drazewski. Their next hearing is Nov. 3.
Beckett said he could not comment on the charges or specifics of the case, but that he was talking to the media to address comments city officials have made since the five CIAM managers were charged.
"The charges are what the charges are," said Beckett. "My client entered a plea of not guilty because he is not guilty."
Beckett said that for city officials to publicly complain about the arena management contract signed almost 12 years ago "seems a little disingenuous."
"This was the city of Bloomington's contract," said Beckett. “When Central Illinois Arena Management got this gig, they were told this is the contract you're going to use."
Provisions in the contract included annual audits and continuous disclosure of financial information, Beckett noted.
“Some city officials complained about the the external audits not being sufficient,” said Beckett. “The public needs to know the city is the one who hires those external auditors. My client and Central Illinois Arena Management rely on those audits as well."
He added, "I think my client has a stellar reputation and just having these charges brought against him and having these city officials say the things that they are saying undermines that reputation significantly. And when the case is over and he is found not guilty, he will be going somewhere and saying: Where do I get my reputation back?"
"All I can say in response (to the charges) … is this case is about business and business practices and proper accounting for funds. My client has done that and done it the right way,” said Beckett.
CIAM operated the downtown facility since it opened in 2006, but opted not to renew the 10-year-old agreement. Ames, Iowa-based VenuWorks took over management of the city-owned arena on April 1, 2016.
The Bronner Group, a Chicago-based management consulting firm, started working with the city on a special audit of the Coliseum contract in March 2015.