Pat Quinn in 2013. | Sun-Times file photo
After losing in November, Gov. Pat Quinn went on a $404.6 million spending spree during his final two months in office, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.
Quinn’s economic development department raced to dole out 609 state grants to local governments, schools and businesses, according to records his administration filed with the Illinois state comptroller.
The total tab for the grants given out in his final 69 days in office came to about half as much as Quinn handed out during the entire 2013-14 budget year.
Most of the grants had been in the planning stages for months, even years, according to Quinn aides. But his administration didn’t finish and send the paperwork to the comptroller’s office to pay any of them until after the Chicago Democrat lost the Nov. 4 election to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
Quinn’s staff kept pushing through paperwork to spend the state money right up through the morning of Jan. 12 so they could lock in the deals before Rauner took over as governor that afternoon.
“There was always a long list of projects waiting for approval,” says Ryan Croke, who was Quinn’s chief of staff. “My goal was to make as much progress as we could in the time we had left.”
In the rush to get the money out, a Sun-Times examination of the grants found:
• The village of Melrose Park was awarded a $3 million grant just weeks after its mayor, Ronald Serpico, ordered a stretch of a street in the west suburb to be named after the late father of a top Quinn aide — John D’Alessandro, who was his chief operating officer. Melrose Park has gotten $2.7 million of the grant so far.
• On the morning Quinn left office, his staff committed $15 million to Rosemont for an indoor pedestrian bridge linking a village-owned parking garage and the Fashion Outlets of Chicago shopping center along the Tri-State Tollway. Rosemont, which has gotten $3.75 million so far, has yet to begin construction.
• Chicago’s cash-strapped public school system got $10 million to pay down debt, which freed up cash so it could hire more workers for Operation Safe Passage, the program Mayor Rahm Emanuel created to escort kids safely to school after 50 schools were closed in 2013, forcing some children to face walks across gang turf. Quinn and Emanuel announced the Safe Passage expansion in August 2014. The governor’s staff didn’t complete the paperwork to pay the money until two weeks after Quinn lost to Rauner.
Also, Cinespace Chicago Film Studios got $10 million to buy land to expand its North Lawndale campus, where NBC’s “Chicago Fire” and other TV shows and movies are produced. But after a Sun-Times investigation in March found that most of the property wasn’t for sale, Rauner ordered the studio to return the money, which it did.
These were among hundreds of job-creation grants Quinn awarded during his six years in office. To pay for them, his administration borrowed billions of dollars, with state lawmakers’ approval. The money went to municipalities, schools and other local government agencies, as well as to businesses ranging from Ford Motor Company to the C.J. Vitner snack company. It will take decades for Illinois taxpayers to repay the money.
Quinn’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity — the agency that gave out the grants — fell under the oversight of D’Alessandro in the governor’s office.
D’Alessandro, 28, who grew up in Melrose Park, joined Quinn’s staff in 2011 as his scheduler and travel aide. He’d risen to deputy chief of staff when he left the state payroll last June to work for the Democratic Governors Association, which pumped $5 million into Quinn’s campaign against Rauner.
The association paid D’Alessandro $182,000 in the five months he worked there, records show. He rejoined Quinn’s staff as chief operating officer after the Nov. 4 election.
Around that time, Serpico decided to honor D’Alessandro’s late father — also named John D’Alessandro — by placing his name on a street sign or monument at the corner of 25th Avenue and Division Street as part of the suburb’s marquee “Gateway Project” a few blocks north of Village Hall, according to Melrose Park village records.
Serpico’s decision came four years after the elder John D’Alessandro died at age 56 following complications from hip surgery. He’d been a vice president of Dean Foods in Batavia.
On Nov. 6 — two days after Rauner defeated Quinn — Serpico ordered the engineering firm handling the Gateway Project to amend its design to include “John D’Alessandro Way,” according to an email obtained under Illinois’ open-records law.
On Nov. 17, Serpico signed the state paperwork for the $3 million grant, which is reimbursing Melrose Park for three land purchases and the construction costs for a parking lot across from Village Hall.
Quinn’s staff signed off on the grant on Jan. 4, 2015 — eight days before he left office.
John D’Alessandro, who was chief operating officer in Gov. Pat Quinn’s final days in office. / LinkedIn photo
“Any suggestion that this action was the result of any sort of quid pro quo or arrangement in exchange for a state grant is despicable,” says Gary Mack, a Melrose Park village spokesman. “The $3 million grant was in process for several years.
“The naming of a street for John D’Alessandro is an honor reserved for longtime residents who have had a significant positive impact on the lives of our citizens and the prosperity of our community,” Mack says. “John D’Alessandro was such a person. His tragic death several years ago left a void in the community, and it is fitting that the Village Board should name a street in his honor and memory.”
The younger D’Alessandro says he had “no role” in the grant. He says the Quinn administration promised the $3 million to Melrose Park last summer, when he was working for the Democratic Governors Association. And he says he never asked the village to honor his father.
“When my dad, a lifelong resident of Melrose Park, passed away five years ago, Mayor Serpico, who was close to my dad and who was gracious enough to attend the service, pulled my family aside to tell us that, like other native sons, the city was planning to do something in the future to honor my dad’s lifelong service to the community,” the former Quinn aide says. “We didn’t hear anything more about it until the family was notified last year that it was going to happen.”
Artist’s rendering of Melrose Park’s plan to name a street Honorary John D’Alessandro Way, recognizing the late father of John D’Alessandro, who was chief operating officer in Gov. Pat Quinn’s final days in office.
D’Alessandro is a longtime friend of Anthony Abruzzo, a member of the Melrose Park village board, but says they never discussed the honorary street name.
“All I can tell you is that he is a friend, another longtime Melrose Park citizen and an incredibly successful businessman who continues to give back to the community,” D’Alessandro says.
Abruzzo, 31, owns the architectural firm Forza Design & Consulting Inc. His biggest clients include Cinespace, which got five grants totaling $27.3 million under Quinn — including the $10 million the film studio ended up returning. Cinespace paid Abruzzo’s company about $60,000 out of state grant money, according to records Cinespace filed with the state.
Abruzzo also designed the Lagunitas brewery, which operates in a warehouse Cinespace owns. No state grant money was used for the construction of the brewery.
Abruzzo, who rents an office on Cinespace’s campus, didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Cinespace spokesman Eric Herman says studio president Alex Pissios never discussed the grants with Abruzzo.
When Rauner took office, he issued an order freezing the awarding of any state contract or grant that had yet to be signed. Lyndsey Walters, a spokeswoman for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, says grants awarded under Quinn “will be funded as long as they continue to meet the terms and conditions set forth in their grant agreements.”
Rauner has proposed creating a not-for-profit corporation that would take over much of the commerce department’s duties — a move he says would spark more economic development statewide. The move has raised concerns from some that most of the agency’s operations and records would be secret — as happened after Navy Pier was turned over to a not-for-profit agency four years ago.
But Walters says the proposed not-for-profit Illinois Business and Economic Development Corp. would remain subject to the state’s open-records law if the General Assembly approves Rauner’s idea.
“The corporation’s records will be subject to [the Freedom of Information Act], the corporation will be audited by the auditor general, and all grants made to the corporation will be subject to the Grant Accountability and Transparency Act,” she says.