The Neighborhood Recovery Initiative has been a political liability for Gov. Pat Quinn since a state audit tore apart the grant program in February, but newly released emails show top aides to the governor worried about its potential political cost as far back as 2011.
That’s when former Quinn chief of staff Jack Lavin, the governor’s former chief operating officer Andrew Ross and the director of the Illinois Finance Authority, Chris Meister, worked to insulate the governor and help contain a brewing, NRI-related tempest involving Chicago Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) in her 2011 aldermanic race.
The disclosure comes in emails Ross released to a legislative panel probing the botched $54.5 million program that is now under federal investigation.
Ross is among seven witnesses subpoenaed by the Legislative Audit Commission, which Wednesday begins two days of hearings aimed at wresting testimony from Quinn’s former inner circle about why the anti-violence program was beset by political cronyism and questionable spending.
Ross’ emails show that he, Meister and Lavin, to varying degrees, appeared to mobilize to buffer Quinn and Graham from any potential political fallout from a WBEZ-FM report in February 2011 about a pair of NRI grants disbursed to organizations linked to the alderman.
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Auditor General William Holland’s February audit of NRI showed $780,000 went to an organization, Kingdom Community Inc., that is headed by Graham’s pastor, the Rev. John T. Abercrombie, who could not be reached Tuesday.
The other grant went to an organization called Learning Network Center, which WBEZ reported was linked to a political supporter of Graham’s who helped circulate her nominating petitions.
Ross’ emails show that Quinn’s cadre of advisors was focused on a campaign press release from Graham’s aldermanic opponents, who vowed to speak out jointly at a Feb. 15, 2011, news conference against the “questionable appropriation of anti-violence funding directly benefiting the incumbent alderman.”
“The potential exposure for the governor’s office from the factually incorrect press release alludes to a scenario where the governor and Alderman Graham made these funding decisions of [sic] their own,” Meister wrote, noting that four of Graham’s opponents had “received … either directly or through affiliated organizations state and federal funds.”
On the afternoon of Feb. 15, 2011, Meister circulated a statement from Graham in which she assailed her opponents’ “last-minute attack” as a move that “stoops to a new low.”
Meister sent another email that afternoon to Ross, Lavin and Quinn communications chief Mica Matsoff, indicating that an aide to state Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, put together the statement and that “Jack’s addition was very valuable,” without specifying Lavin’s input.
“Hopefully the story will die,” Meister wrote.
Meister could not be reached for comment, and a lawyer representing Lavin, who also is among those subpoenaed by the Legislative Audit Commission and is scheduled to appear Thursday, did not respond to the Chicago Sun-Times.
The ranking Republican on the Legislative Audit Commission said the string of emails shows that political considerations were on display as the high-level Quinn aides focused on the attack on Graham from her opponents.
“The decision-making here had a blatant political undertone,” said state Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, co-chair of the legislative panel probing NRI.
A spokeswoman for Quinn’s office said the governor had no hand in steering grant funding into Graham’s ward, shut down the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority when serious “management issues” with NRI arose, and criticized Barickman’s characterization of Ross’ emails.
“Mr. Barickman is plain wrong,” Quinn spokeswoman Katie Hickey said in a prepared statement.
Ross’ attorney, Richard A. Saldinger, didn’t respond to the Sun-Times but said in a Sept. 26 letter to the Legislative Audit Commission that his client’s personal emails “may or may not be ‘relevant,’” and that Ross is “producing these emails out of an abundance of caution.”
Graham, meanwhile, insisted she did not have a hand in steering grant funds to her pastor’s organization or to another group run by a campaign supporter.
“I don’t want to get into all of this,” she said. “But I didn’t have any hand in the selection process.”