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Grand Jury Charges Springfield Ad Agency Owner Defrauded Federal Grant Of $500,000

March 5, 2008

Invoices Overstated Number of Anti-Drunk Driving Billboards Produced, Posted

Springfield, Ill. -- A federal grand jury today returned an indictment charging a Springfield advertising agency’s owner for defrauding a federal grant of at least $500,000 for services and products that were not provided. The nine-count indictment charges Robert G. Sullinger, 59, owner of Great Plains Group LLC, located at 1224 Centre West, Springfield, with submitting fraudulent invoices over a six-year period from 1999 through 2004, and lying to federal investigators.

In announcing the charges, Rodger A. Heaton, U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois, stated, “Today’s indictment reflects our continuing commitment to investigate and prosecute those who seek to misuse or squander taxpayer funds. Waste and abuse of public funds will not be tolerated. It is incumbent upon anyone with information about abuses of public funds - whether local, state or federal - to report what they know to law enforcement.”

The Central Illinois Public Corruption Task Force operates a toll-free Tip Line: 1-877-U-Tip-Off ( 1-877-884-7633.) Agencies participating in the task force are among those who investigated the charges against Sullinger returned today by the grand jury. Task force agencies include the FBI, Springfield Division; Illinois State Police; Illinois Secretary of State Office of Inspector General; U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Chicago Division; and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations. Additional partners in the investigation include the Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Transportation and the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Office of Quality Compliance and Review and General Counsel’s Office. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick D. Hansen.

In this case, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) administered grant money from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation, to produce and post anti-drunk driving posters and billboards throughout the state. IDOT dispersed the funds for this program through the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Office as the recipient of a “local alcohol program” grant. Under the agreement, the sheriff’s office agreed to act as a “pass through” for the funding, but required that all invoices for billboards first be presented and approved by IDOT prior to payments being processed by the sheriff’s office. Upon payment of the approved invoices, IDOT reimbursed the sheriff’s office for the expenditure.

In total, from January 1999 to September 2004, according to the indictment, Sullinger, through his advertising agency, Great Plains Group, was paid more than $1.5 million in federal funds through IDOT and the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Office. An additional $172,750 was paid by the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Office to Great Plains which the state did not reimburse.

In December 1998, Sullinger, through Great Plains, submitted a proposal to IDOT to produce and post anti-drunk driving billboards, including vinyl and paper postings, throughout the state. The indictment alleges that for each fiscal year beginning in 1999 and continuing through fiscal year 2004, Sullinger, directly and through others, knowingly submitted false and fraudulent invoices that overstated the number of poster billboards produced and posted. As a result, the indictment alleges Sullinger and Great Plains Group was overpaid by more than $500,000.

When Sullinger was interviewed by FBI agents in December 2005, the indictment alleges he made false statements and covered up material facts. During the interview, Sullinger allegedly falsely stated that Great Plains Group’s profit margin was 15% for the billboard program and that this percentage was built into the invoices for production of the billboard displays, not on the posting fees. In fact, according to the indictment, the profit margin on the production costs was between 500% and 800% and there was additional profit on the “posting” fees invoiced in relation to the cost incurred by Great Plains.

In an attempt to cover up the fraud scheme, the indictment further alleges that in or about July 25, 2006, Sullinger had a Hannibal, Missouri company produce billboard posters in 2006 although he had already billed the government for them, and IDOT and the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Office had paid for them in 2004.

Sullinger allegedly again made false statements to FBI agents during an interview on or about January 22, 2007, when, according to the indictment, he falsely stated that he discussed with an IDOT official that he “pre-billed” for the production of approximately 700 billboard displays and sought direction on what to do about the over-billings, when in fact, he did not discuss anything regarding his “pre-billing” IDOT for billboards.

If convicted, each of the five counts of making a false claim carries a maximum statutory penalty of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 or twice the financial gain or loss to the victim. For each of the two counts of mail fraud, the statutory penalty is up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 or twice the financial gain or loss. For the two counts of making false statements to federal law enforcement officers, the penalty is up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

Sullinger is expected to make his initial appearance in federal court before U.S. Magistrate Judge Byron Cudmore in Springfield on March 17, 2008, at 2:00 p.m.

Members of the public are reminded that an indictment is merely an accusation; the defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty.

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