Brown: State panel should ignore feds’ request to delay funding probe

Written By By MARK BROWN Posted: 07/15/2014, 02:19am

When federal prosecutors make a request, it’s not a good idea to ignore them. After all, they indict people for a living.

But in the case of the U.S. Department of Justice asking state legislators to temporarily stand down in their investigation of Gov. Pat Quinn’s troubled anti-violence program, I think this is one instance where the proper response is to respectfully decline.

Despite the feds’ protestations, the Illinois Legislative Audit Commission should proceed Wednesday with its planned questioning of former members of Quinn’s administration who were involved with running his $54.5 million Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.

The program also is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation out of Springfield, which is why prosecutors have warned that their work could be compromised by legislators mucking about.

However, with an election for governor looming in November, I’d argue the public’s need to sort out the facts about what went wrong with the program outweighs the need for prosecutors to keep their potential witnesses from saying something that could make their work harder.

That’s really what that’s all about. Prosecutors never want a potential witness who they may later need to bolster their case testifying beforehand to some version of events that later could be discovered to be at odds with the truth — or at least what they believe to be the truth.

That’s especially true if investigators have yet to get their own opportunity to question the witness. Having a potential witness testify in public only creates more headaches for them in making their case, possibly creating an opening for a defense lawyer to use any inconsistencies against them.

Still, this isn’t like the Iran Contra hearings where Congress could complicate a federal investigation by immunizing Oliver North to testify. The state Legislature doesn’t have that power.

If somebody involved with this program has committed a crime, and may I point out we’re a long way from showing that to be so despite a stinging state audit and some damning news stories, then I certainly want to see them prosecuted.

But timing is a problem. Prosecutors asked for a 90-day delay. That would take us to mid-October, just weeks before an election in which this program has already emerged as a campaign issue. There is no guarantee prosecutors will take any public action in that time frame, nor that they won’t ask for another delay.

For all that’s been written about the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, there’s still too much about it that we don’t know because many of the central figures in operating the program have yet to be heard from publicly.

It would be better to start getting some answers from them now than in January.

Admittedly, the Legislative Audit Commission may not be the best fact-finding body known to man. But it’s all we have to work with in this situation.

The commission is unique in that it is truly bi-partisan by design — made up of six Republicans and six Democrats drawn equally from the Illinois House and Senate.

Neither party can dictate what it does.

Republicans, who obviously are trying to help Bruce Rauner make this a campaign issue, have indicated they would prefer to forge ahead with questioning the individuals who were subpoenaed, although it remained unclear Monday whether all six GOP panel members were in agreement.

Likewise, some Democrats have said they’d prefer to defer the inquiry as requested, but nobody is sure how they plan to play their hand Wednesday.

Neither Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, or Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, the commission’s co-chairmen, returned my calls Monday.

My own belief is the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative was probably more beneficial to the public than has been portrayed. It’s not as if all the money landed in the hands of political hacks. Some good organizations received funding to try to do what they could to keep young people positively engaged and out of trouble, and I don’t doubt they did the best they could in spending it wisely.

At the same time, I doubt we have plumbed the depths of the extent to which some of the money was misspent.

As far as it being an election “slush fund,” as I’ve said previously, I think state funds were hurried into circulation to make some of the governor’s allies more enthusiastic about their support for him in the 2010 elections. That doesn’t mean the program was used for Election Day “walking around” money, as some have tried to imply.

If there’s more here than meets the eye, though, I’d rather find out now than later.


Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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