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Would-be philanthropist sentenced in check-fraud case

April 5, 2012

A 70-year-old Trafalgar man who made empty promises of multimillion-dollar gifts to local cultural institutions was sentenced to six years of probation Thursday morning in an unrelated check-fraud case.

Joseph Bilby received the sentence from Johnson County Superior Judge Cynthia Emkes for three counts of check fraud, a Class D felony, stemming from a barn-building project.

Emkes suspended a three-year prison sentence because Bilby managed to pay more than $60,000 in restitution to two Johnson County builders, Rick Coy and A.G. Bryant. Bilby came up with $41,000 of the restitution in February, four years after being charged with passing bad checks to the two contractors who were building barns for his horses.  

Emkes recalled that she had been "disgusted" with Bilby because he appeared to be living a normal life, while his victims suffered. She had agreed to delay sentencing to see if Bilby could find a way to repay the contractors. Emkes said she was surprised that he managed to do so. "Quite frankly, it's enough to keep you out of jail," Emkes told Bilby Thursday morning in the Franklin courtroom..

Bilby pleaded guilty to the check-fraud charges in October 2010. Then last fall he began making contact with local arts groups and other major not-for-profits and pledged to give them millions of dollars.

The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art announced a $17.1 million pledge from an anonymous donor, who turned out to be Bilby, on Nov. 10. Bilby also signed pledge agreements with at least two other organizations, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and Indianapolis Zoo, according to people familiar with the situation.

Executives of the not-for-profits lost faith in Bilby after he cancelled a Jan. 26 meeting at Meridian Hills Country Club, where he planned to go public with his gifts.

At least one area not-for-profit discovered Bilby's criminal charges. Special prosecutor Sonia Leerkamp said she spoke with an attorney at the Indiana University Foundation in late January about the fact that Bilby was promising a large donation.

Leerkamp told Emkes she didn't think Bilby was remorseful because he'd stopped paying restitution last August and then came up with $41,000 days before the original date for his sentencing, Feb. 16. She told the judge about the phone call she'd received from the IU Foundation and IBJ's coverage in February of his empty promises.

Bilby's attorney, Mary Zahn, asked the judge not to consider circumstances outside the case, which she said was driven by his dire financial situation, including his wife's Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

It's unclear what motivated Bilby to hold himself out as a deep-pocketed philanthropist, though he did attract attention from local not-for-profit executives.

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