Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Legislative panel plans probe of Quinn's anti-violence initiative

By Jamey Dunn

A legislative commission that reviews state audits voted today to activate its subpoena power to look into Gov. Pat Quinn’s troubled anti-violence program.

A scathing audit from Auditor General William Holland thrust the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative (NRI) into the spotlight earlier this year. According to the report, the program did not use a competitive bidding process to select the providers and dole out grants but instead relied on recommendations from Chicago aldermen. Auditors found that at least $2 million was unaccounted for and necessary documentation was missing, including timecards for workers.

Since the audit, the U.S. attorney's office and the Cook County prosecutor's office have both begun investigating to program. Republicans have accused the governor of using the $54 million program as a “political slush fund.” The bulk of the money for the program came from discretionary spending Quinn is allowed under the state budget. Contracts for the program were signed shortly before Quinn narrowly won the 2010 race for governor, and some of the funding began to go out shortly after Election Day. 

Quinn says that he shut the NRI down as soon as he became aware that it had problems. “When it wasn’t going in the right direction, when it wasn’t doing what we wanted it to do, I shut it down completely and stopped it cold,” Quinn said today. “I didn’t sweep anything under the rug. I acted on behalf of the public and shut the program down.” Quinn is also advocating for the passage of House Bill 3820, which would require more oversight for state grants. The House passed the bill last month. “I’m ready to sign it into law. I think that that certainly is something that is an important mission.”

Sen. Jason Barickman, a Bloomington Republican, brought a motion to the Legislative Audit Commission today that would allow the bipartisan panel to subpoena witnesses or information pertaining to the NRI. The commission, which is made up of members of both chambers, reviews audits, holds public hearings with state agency heads and sometimes recommends changes to the law as a result of audit findings. “Given what we know today about this program, given the many questions that many of us have about this program, the statute makes clear that we need to further investigate, find out what facts exist and make our recommendations accordingly,” said Barickman. “It’s clear that we have more work to do to get to the bottom of this.”

The proposal received bipartisan support; however, several Democrats on the commission voiced concerns that a probe from the commission would at best produce nothing beyond what will come out during the ongoing criminal investigations and would at worst impede them. “What’s the value at the end of the day that we’ll be putting on the table?” asked Hoffman Estates Democratic Rep. Fred Crespo, who sponsors HB 3820. “What can we do that they cannot do?” Crespo and others said that the commission does not have the resources to launch a major investigation.

Barickman, who chairs the committee, and co-chair Rep. Frank Mautino, a Democrat from Spring Valley, would both have to sign off on any subpoenas issued. Mautino was the sole vote against the motion. He argued that the information the committee needs is already available and that subpoenas may be unecessary. He noted that Holland’s office has several boxes of documents related to the audit and that no legislative staffers have gone through them at this point. Mautino said that the panel should first ask for the information and witnesses it is seeking instead of resorting to subpoena powers.

Holland said he would provide the commission with any information they want. “You don’t have to subpoena the records, and you don’t have to FOIA the records. You make an appointment, you come in and you take a look. That’s the way we do business,” He said. Holland also said that state agencies are required by law to comply. Barickman said that because the agency that oversaw the program has been dissolved and some of the people who worked on the NRI have since left state government, the commission may need the legal power to compel them to cooperate.

Barickman said that today’s action would give the committee “every tool available” to look into the issue in the coming months. “We’re not scheduled to meet [again] until late August or September of 2014. So this gives us all of the tools necessary to continue with our duties over the summer.” If the commission decides to bring forward any revelations about the NRI at that next hearing, it would be pretty inopportune political timing for Quinn’s reelection bid.

Quinn called Brickman’s motion politically motivated. “Politcs as usual. It’s a political time of year. We shut the program down. That’s the bottom line. We did it two years ago.”

Barickman said Quinn has been trying to “rewrite the facts” in recent media appearances. He said that the commission’s vote today “demonstrated wholeheartedly” that “this absolutely is not a partisan issue.” But whether the power will actually come into play is yet to be seen. Mautino would have to agree to subpoenas and an equally balanced bipartisan subcommittee would then have to draft them and approve them by a majority vote. Democrats on the commission went along with today’s vote, for the most part, but they may not be as accommodating when and if the subpoenas begin to fly.

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