Franshuan Myles, photographed Aug. 4, 2016, at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago, is now on trial after being accused of using state grant money for a personal spending spree. (Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune)
As the leader of a small nonprofit in Chicago’s poverty-stricken West Garfield Park neighborhood, Franshuan Myles was supposed to use a $60,000 state grant to help impoverished youth learn new skills and stay out of trouble over their summer break.
Instead, federal prosecutors allege that Myles started stealing the funds the moment they hit her bank account in 2011, using cash for shopping sprees at shoe outlets and Home Depot, paying the loan on her Dodge Charger as well as utility bills and old debts.
"While the state of Illinois saw a way to enrich the lives of kids, this defendant right here saw a way to enrich herself," Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu told jurors Monday at the outset of Myles’ fraud trial in federal court.
Myles, 39, was charged last year with one count each of wire fraud and mail fraud stemming from her work at the now-defunct Divine Praise Inc.
Her indictment sparked interest after the Tribune revealed in August that Myles wrote a Divine Praise check for $4,932 to 28th Ward Ald. Jason Ervin, identified by authorities only as "Individual A." That payment was made in August 2011, shortly after Myles received the money from the state, prosecutors alleged.
Ervin, who was not accused of wrongdoing, was added last week to the list of potential witnesses in Myles’ trial. It was not clear if he will be called to testify, but prosecutors are expected to present evidence about the money he received from Myles.
Also on the witness list are state Sen. Kimberly Lightford and former Sen. Annazette Collins.
The Tribune has previously reported that shortly after receiving the grant money, Myles wrote a $100 check from the Divine Praise to Collins’ campaign fund. Collins, who lost her seat in the Democratic primary the following year, told the newspaper she didn’t recall the donation. She was not accused of wrongdoing.
Prosecutors have not diclosed what Lightford’s connection is to the case. Calls to both her Springfield office and her district office in west suburban Westchester were not immediately returned Monday.
In his opening remarks, Myles’ lawyer, Michael Petro, said Myles may be guilty of sloppy bookkeeping but no proof exists she stole any money.
Myles grew up in West Garfield Park and has "spent her whole life trying to make the neighborhood a better place for the people who live there," Petro said.
The indictment against Myles is one of two brought so far by the U.S. Attorneys Office stemming from information provided by former Chicago Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan, who turned over his files to the FBI after aldermen eliminated his post in 2015.
Khan’s files also sparked a federal probe of 20th Ward Ald. Willie Cochran, who is awaiting trial on charges he stole thousands of dollars in charitable contributions meant for poor children and seniors in the largely impoverished ward.
Prosecutors in Myles’ case alleged the $60,000 Illinois Youth Recreation Corps grant, administered by the state Department of Natural Resources, was supposed to be used to employ 20 youths ages 16 to 19 to instruct other kids in physical activities, arts and crafts and other summer programs.
Although she hired a number of instructors, Myles also used the windfall to buy shoes and other merchandise from apparel stores, prosecutors alleged. She also rented a car for a former Divine Praise officerand made cash withdrawals totaling about $2,800, prosecutors said.
"As soon as that money hit that bank account, she started misappropriating it," Bhachu said in his opening statement Monday to jurors.
Bhachu said Myles lied in a November 2011 certification letter about how the money was spent, attaching a false spreadsheet listing the names of the youths she had purportedly hired as instructors.
One of the teens had spent his summer working as a paid intern for a private accounting firm, Bhachu said.