Waste, corruption persist in state grant programs

Written By By Mark Brown Posted: 04/14/2014, 05:18am

State grants are the soft underbelly of Illinois government.

This is where the bodies are buried — along with the money to pay them. This is where government waste goes to hide.

Everybody knows it, but nobody seems to be able to do much about it — until the dirt comes out in the wash.

It’s little wonder, therefore, that we had more damning information coming to light this past week about a state anti-violence grant program just as a federal jury in Springfield was convicting a south suburban woman for her role in abusing a state job-training grant.

The revelation by the Sun-Times’ Dave McKinney that the husband of Cook County Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown collected more than $146,000 in compensation through the state’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative may be the best evidence yet of something hinky in the rollout of that anti-violence program.

Brown’s office remains an important repository of patronage jobs for the Democratic Party, which raises legitimate questions about who might have helped her husband land one of the better-paying positions in the state program.

The Neighborhood Recovery Initiative had already come under scathing criticism from state Auditor General William Holland for its slipshod spending and management practices, although not nearly as scathing as what Republicans had to say while telegraphing they will make this a key issue to be used against Gov. Pat Quinn in the fall campaign.

If we roll back the pages of the calendar, though, it’s easy to find many other state grants that have caused problems.

You’ll certainly recall the embarrassing insider contracting deals that sprang from the $98 million charter school construction grant awarded to the United Neighborhood Organization.

Last week, federal prosecutors in Springfield won a conviction against Jeri Wright, the daughter of President Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who played a small role in a $1.25 million grant fraud scheme involving Country Club Hills Police Chief Regina Evans and her husband, a Chicago police officer. Evans and her husband had already pleaded guilty to spending most of the money on themselves.

Earlier, that same prosecutor’s office had obtained guilty pleas from two Chicago women associated with the National Black Nurses Association, who admitted improperly siphoning off $500,000 in state grant money. One of the women alleged some of the money had gone to pay campaign workers for former state Sen. Rickey Hendon, who allegedly helped the group obtain the grant.

All told, the Sun-Times Chris Fusco reported last year, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Springfield has charged 13 people in recent years in connection with grant fraud schemes involving at least $16 million.

Of course, much of the waste doesn’t even rise to the level of criminality, at least not provably so, given the need for a cooperating witness.

What are the common denominators in these cases?

Usually a lack of oversight from the state agency dispensing the money, and often some connection to Illinois politics.

Unlike the state payroll, which is pretty much right out in the open these days thanks to public databases, the names of those getting paid under state grants are hidden from the prying eyes of citizens and the news media.

Often, even the state agencies paying out the grants don’t have easy access to that level of information — or the manpower to review it. Of course, that assumes the people running the agencies want to know.

Even when the grants are audited later, there’s little chance of recovering misspent dollars from entities that rely on government funding for their existence.

Funny thing about state grants: the money is almost always earmarked on the surface for some valid altruistic purpose — AIDS prevention, saving a neighborhood cultural anchor, steering young men away from illegal activities that breed violence.

But time after time, we find that the grants that go bad were paid to political allies in recognition of past or future support.

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