After seven and half hours of partisan bickering, posturing and grandstanding, a theoretically “bipartisan” panel of state legislators recessed for the evening Wednesday without reaching agreement on the main order of business they had met to decide.
That being: how to respond to a federal prosecutor’s request that they delay calling witnesses in their investigation of Gov. Pat Quinn’s troubled anti-violence program.
Actually, they did pretty much agree but were either too pig-headed or too determined to keep the other side from gaining a political advantage to actually strike the bargain.
Both sides now say they want to defer their inquiry for the 90 days requested by James Lewis, the U.S. attorney in Springfield who is conducting a criminal investigation of the program. They also seem to agree that Lewis should be allowed to extend that delay if he’s not finished with his work, but they can’t agree on the wording.
Without going into all the details, it’s a little like debating the meaning of the word “is.”
After sitting through what was singularly one of the most excruciating and frustrating public meetings I can remember, I began to wonder: Is this what it’s like in Washington?
I mean, I don’t get out to our nation’s capitol often, but this definitely had all the earmarks of the partisan gridlock that we’re told keeps our federal government from resolving anything.
“This is embarrassing,” complained Rep. David Reis, R-Willow Heights, as the long day came to an end. “We’ve been here seven hours and haven’t asked a question.”
The Republicans would have liked to have asked lots of questions of seven former members of Quinn’s administration who were subpoenaed to testify about their involvement with the governor’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, in particular its hasty rollout in October 2010 just as Quinn was running for election.
The still-evolving story of misspending in the $55 million program looms as a potent campaign weapon in the November election, and Republican gubernatorial nominee Bruce Rauner has latched onto to it in an effort to discredit Quinn so that he doesn’t have to talk about his business dealings or his plans for the state. On the flipside, Democrats were only too happy to have a good excuse to keep the matter out of the headlines for a while.
But after Lewis renewed his request in writing on Tuesday that the Legislative Audit Commission’s work “would impose several substantial risks” to his investigation, there really wasn’t much maneuvering room left for Republicans who like to think of themselves as the party of law and order. They had little choice but to back down.
As I wrote previously, I think they would have been well within their rights to press forward, as there is a legitimate need for a public airing of this issue before the election. I also believe federal prosecutors tend to exaggerate the potential risks to their investigation, or at least fail to balance it with other legitimate interests. But I’m in the minority.
For those who are accustomed to all the substantial investigations of political corruption in Illinois coming out of Chicago, not Springfield, it should be noted that has changed in recent years with Lewis rolling out several aggressive prosecutions involving misuse of state grant monies. In other words, he’s a serious prosecutor, and this is a serious investigation.
Of the seven people subpoenaed to testify, only one showed up — former Chicago alderman Billy Ocasio, who became an adviser to Quinn. Five others sent lawyers in their place, and a lawyer for the seventh sent her apologies.
Ocasio was rewarded for his forthrightness by being held hostage all day as Republicans threatened to begin questioning him if they couldn’t get an agreement from Democrats on what should happen after the 90-day delay. I never could square that with their stated determination not to interfere with the investigation. Toward the end of the day, Ocasio finally just gave up and walked out.
None of the witnesses agreed to testify at this time, and by not showing up, they were all saved the embarrassment of possibly having to plead the 5th Amendment, which their lawyers insisted is not their intent. All sent word they are willing to testify, but not at this time in light of the U.S. attorney’s request.
Commission co-chairmen Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, and Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, finally agreed to call Lewis together this morning to clarify how they might handle the potential of scheduling another hearing at the end of the requested grace period in October, which would fall one month before the election.
Do you think it would be too much to ask to put him on a speakerphone, so we can all listen in?