The former agency head overseeing Gov. Pat Quinn’s troubled anti-violence program gave state lawmakers a contrasting picture Wednesday, saying the 2010 initiative largely worked and created jobs and opportunities during a violent time for the Chicago area.

Barbara Shaw, former executive director of the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority,  spoke publicly for the first time about the now-defunct program, spending more than five hours detailing how the program was run. 

Painting a different picture, the GOP seized on 2010 emails from Quinn’s former chief of staff released to the commission mentioning the program in the context of the competitive 2010 election. Questions over the program have dogged Quinn’s current re-election bid against Republican Bruce Rauner.

Shaw was among seven former state officials subpoenaed before the Legislative Audit Commission, which is reviewing a state audit outlining “pervasive” problems with management and spending in the roughly $55 million program. Cook County and federal authorities are also investigating.

But Shaw said the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative she helped design and oversee — it coordinated roughly 200 community groups and provided funding — used a wide approach, including a program for ex-offenders, job training and mentorship. In hours of testimony, she said it was a direct response to violence and noted the 2009 beating death of a Chicago student caught on tape.

“The focus has been on the relatively few organizations that had problems,” she said. “People say we have to get to the bottom of the NRI program. I say we have to get the middle and the top and look at the excellent work that was done. There is no question that not all the ideas worked equally well in all communities or that all agencies were as successful as most, but the approach was sound.”

She said her major regret was not asking for more staff.

Shaw, who retired in 2012, was the first to testify in the hearings that come weeks before the November election. Quinn is seeking a second full term in one of the most competitive gubernatorial contests nationwide. Rauner, a businessman challenging the Democratic incumbent, has focused heavily on problems in the NRI.

 

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Republicans called the program a “political slush” fund meant to shore up votes ahead of the 2010 election. Quinn won by fewer than 32,000 votes against state Sen. Bill Brady, who sits on the commission. Quinn has dismissed the notion and said he moved to correct problems, including abolishing the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, which oversaw the program.

Still, Republicans raised the issue Wednesday, pointing to emails from Quinn’s former chief of staff Jack Lavin to campaign officials in 2010 about reaching out to African-American voters and highlighted one line that said the anti-violence program could help the campaign “on the jobs and anti-violence messages.”

The email was among thousands of documents the bipartisan commission subpoenaed. Quinn campaign spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said the email clearly was “not government conversations.”  It was from Lavin’s personal address and sent on a Sunday. She added that a campaign would “want to promote” what the governor was doing to fight violence, as it would other parts of his record.

Lavin was expected to testify before the commission Thursday with two other former officials.

Shaw said the governor’s office didn’t influence where funding went, saying the first time she spoke to Quinn about the program was at the news conference in 2010 when it was announced.

“The governor’s office never told us who to give the money to, what communities to go in, what agencies should get that money,” she said. “The elections did not play in role in where that money went.”

The state auditor general has said the program was hastily implemented and mismanaged. A February audit questioned expenditures claimed by service providers. Members of the commission — which signs off on audits — said numerous questions are unanswered.

Critics have also questioned the role that Chicago aldermen played in the program, questioning their influence over which groups got funding. Shaw said aldermen in particular areas plagued by violence and poverty didn’t dictate who got the funding, but were asked for recommendations.

A former alderman and former adviser to Quinn on Wednesday told the commission he had little involvement with the anti-violence program.

Former Ald. Billy Ocasio said he had little to do with NRI aside from attending a few meetings.

Ocasio says there was no mention of elections when it came to the program.

Ocasio is a former 26th Ward alderman who was Quinn’s senior adviser on social justice issues.

Sophia Tareen, Associated Press