Ex-top Quinn aide: NRI emails sent to ‘educate the campaign’

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Gov. Pat Quinn’s former chief of staff said Thursday he was simply trying to “educate” the governor’s campaign when he wrote in a 2010 email that Quinn’s new anti-violence program could help energize black voters.

Four years later, Jack Lavin found himself testifying for hours in front of a legislative committee about that program, the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, which has become a key topic in this year’s gubernatorial campaign since a scathing February audit.

In the email in question, Lavin told Quinn campaign manager Ben Nuckels that “The [African American] community tends to break late [in voting decisions] so we have some time.”

“The Gov’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative will also help on the jobs and anti-violence messages,” Lavin wrote. “If we agree that this election is about turning out the base, particularly [African American], Hispanic and women, we better start thinking about our targeting and not only about the general electorate.”

Lavin said he sent the email from his personal computer and email account on a Sunday in September 2010. And he explained it Thursday by telling the General Assembly’s Legislative Audit Commission “elections are about referendums on incumbents.”

“What have they done? What have they accomplished? Have they shown leadership? What have they done for our town or community?” Lavin said. “Campaigns are about messaging and educating various constituencies about the incumbent.”

Lavin said an epidemic of gun violence in Chicago prompted the rush to launch NRI. But Rep. Ron Sandack, a Downers Grove Republican, noted that voters cast their ballots for governor less than two months after Lavin sent his email.

“You wanted to energize a base, just as this email says, sir,” Sandack said. “This was all about getting people to the polls on or before Nov. 4.”

Lavin denied it. He is one of seven former members of Quinn’s inner circle subpoenaed by the Legislative Audit Commission for two days of hearings that began on Wednesday.

Quinn campaign spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said Lavin’s email clearly was “not government conversations.” 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.

Republicans focused during portions of Thursday’s hearing on trying to figure out who came up with the idea for NRI. Lavin told the committee the governor’s office at the time was “flat,” “collegial” and that staff collaborated on programs.

Lavin also testified at one point that “there’s enough responsibility to go around” for NRI’s failures. That prompted Sandack to ask if Lavin accepted any of that responsibility.

“I guess I do have some responsibility,” Lavin said. “Along with the governor.”

Former deputy chiefs of staff Toni Irving and Andy Ross also testified. And Irving was blunt when asked who came up with NRI.

“The NRI program was created by Barbara Shaw, and I did not have any input into its creation,” Irving said.

Shaw is the former head of the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority. She testified before the committee Wednesday.

Committee members also tried to determine how the 23 communities that received NRI money were chosen. Lavin repeatedly testified he was told they were chosen based on “crime statistics.”

“I was never shown a study or anything like that,” Lavin said.

Lavin also resisted descriptions of the program as having been “grossly mismanaged.” He repeatedly said 14,000 people benefitted from the program. 

But Republicans call the program a “political slush fund” meant to shore up votes ahead of the 2010 election.

Quinn won by less 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.

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