Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Lawmakers: Can you follow the money?

By Patrick O’Brien
Lawmakers still don’t know why Gov. Rod Blagojevich gave a $1 million grant to the wrong organization. The administration sent Deputy Gov. Louanner Peters to take the grilling Wednesday before a House committee, whose members say there are more questions now than before the hearing.

Peters testified for more than an hour but provided little new information about the grant to the Loop Lab School in Chicago. The governor said that the money was supposed to go to rebuild the administrative offices of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago after a fire gutted the building. The school was renting the office at the time.

Beyond a history lesson about the landmark building, Peters continually cited an ongoing investigation by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity that she said prevented her from discussing the grant. She couldn’t say how long the investigation would take. She referred to John Filan, chief financial officer of the state, who oversees the department but who wasn’t there to answer questions.

Peters dutifully responded to every inquiry, mostly referring questions to the administration’s lawyers. Peters also compared the grant in question to the pet projects of legislators, saying there was little oversight over those projects.

The stonewalling was complete when Peters and another administration official raced out of the room after the hearing without taking questions.

It’s still unclear how the school, a separate entity from the church, ended up with money instead. The governor previously called it a “bureaucratic mistake” that was handled by two former employees.

Rep. Jack Franks, a Woodstock Democrat and frequent Blagojevich critic, scheduled the hearing. He said real estate documents show the property went into foreclosure two months after the school paid John Thomas $1.3 million for the second floor of the building. The Chicago Sun-Times reported, based on unnamed sources, that Thomas was an FBI informant in the current federal trial of Blagojevich insider Tony Rezko.

Franks questioned Peters on what he deemed inconsistencies in the governor’s account of the deal, saying the grant was fast-tracked and ignored obvious “red flags” in the school’s recent past. Franks said the grant never should have gone through because a cease and desist order related to a sexual harassment charge against the school was on record. There also were concerns over a felony conviction of a school administrator who the governor later pardoned.

The school currently isn’t operating.

Franks promised more meetings on the subject and requested a list of documents from Peters for a future hearing. “We need to find out if this was a mistake or if it was done on purpose,” he said.

CDB: “Time is money”
By Bethany Jaeger
At the same time next door, more House members heard that the longer it takes to approve a statewide capital bill, the more likely the state will have to pay top dollar for unanticipated emergency repairs to state buildings, including schools.

“Time is money,” said Janet Grimes, executive director of the Capital Development Board, which oversees construction projects for state facilities. “Prices have been rising by as much as 5 percent a year. The price for construction has risen 27 percent since the last time the state allocated funds for the school projects.”

The number of projects classified as an emergency has tripled since fiscal year 2002, she said. “At that time, 13 projects were handled as emergencies, totaling $3 million. And last year that tripled. So we had 40 emergency projects totaling $10.5 million ... It’s definitely cheaper, smarter and more responsible to maintain buildings, and the state simply hasn’t been doing that.”

The agency seeks $2 billion for its portion of the capital plan, but Grimes said it’s up to legislators to approve the funding source. So far, that's selling the Illinois Lottery or expanding gaming. Both are buried in politics, which promise to drag out the debate and leave public buildings waiting for a long time.

Franks: “Throw the bums out”
By Bethany Jaeger
Constitutional Amendment 28: If voters believe a constitutional officer or a state legislator is taking the state in the wrong direction, Franks, the Woodstock Democrat, says they should have the ability to recall that official and elect a replacement.

The so-called recall provision would require voters to approve a change in the state Constitution. The legislature has to approve Franks’ measure for a ballot to pose the question of whether to allow a recall. The Illinois House continues to consider Franks’ measure and changed it Wednesday to remove judges from the measure, but it still has a long way to go.

Eighteen other states have a recall provision, according to Franks.

Opponents argue that voters already have the ability to kick officials out of office. “It’s called an election, frankly,” said Rep. Al Riley, a Matteson Democrat, during debate. Rep. Jay Hoffman, a Collinsville Democrat, added that a recall provision could lead lawmakers to become even more paranoid that they would lose their seats for disagreeing with their constituents.

Franks said it’s an “extraordinary measure that shouldn’t be taken lightly” and isn’t meant to be used if voters simply hold a grudge against a particular candidate. He added that a recall provision is necessary to regain voters’ trust in government, particularly given the recent series of federal investigations into state officials, including the current and past governor. Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn supports the idea, and the governor has said he too would support a recall provision.

“They think that their officials are supposed to be corrupt,” Franks said. “They think that’s just how it’s always going to be. And they don’t have the ability to change it.”

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