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Benton Cook's bid for state grant money rejected

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration put the brakes on an effort by the husband of Cook County Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown to win a $350,000 grant late last year from a state agency Brown helps oversee.</p>

Dr. Benton Cook III applied for state after-school grant funds from the Criminal Justice Information Authority, but his bid on behalf of a nonprofit he formed was rejected when he didn’t participate in a required webinar conducted by the agency, state officials told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“It shows that when proper grant controls are in place, taxpayers are best protected,” said Brooke Anderson, spokeswoman for Gov. Pat Quinn, whose administration has been shaken by state and federal investigations into the governor’s 2010 Neighborhood Recovery Initiative anti-violence program.

“[The Criminal Justice Information Authority] holds all grantees to strict standards, and that’s how the process should always work. It also highlights why it’s important to have stronger and streamlined grant oversight and controls across all state agencies,” she said.

Aiming to crack down on state grant fraud, Quinn’s office is pushing legislation sponsored by Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, that passed the House but that appears to have hit a snag in the Senate. The legislation would heighten state scrutiny on grants by adopting federal disclosure rules for applicants.

Through his nonprofit, Dream Catchers Community Development Corporation, Cook was seeking the state dollars for use in after-school programs at two alternative high schools in Roseland and Lawndale that are operated, in part, by Magic Johnson Enterprises, a company owned by the former Los Angeles Lakers star.

“It was for an opportunity for our students to experience some mentoring opportunities,” said Cory Gold, program director for the Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy campus in Lawndale.

Gold said Cook came to the school touting the possibility of getting state grant funding for its after-school programming.

“I can say he’s been an outstanding resource in the capacity of bringing ideas and opportunities for our students,” Gold said of Cook.

But the plan didn’t pan out.

“All potential grantees were required to register to participate in an informational webinar we hosted on the proposal and grant requirements,” said Cristin Monti Evans, spokeswoman for the Criminal Justice Information Authority.

“Dream Catchers didn’t register for the webinar and therefore became ineligible. More than 100 proposals were submitted from various agencies for those grants, and we only reviewed those that met the requirements,” she said.

Cook’s wife, the circuit clerk, is a member, by statute, of the governing board of the Criminal Justice Information Authority. Brown also is chairwoman of the board’s budget committee, through which all grants are disbursed.

Cook has been hit with a federal subpoena asking him to appear before a grand jury as part of an investigation into Quinn’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.

Cook was hired by Chicago Area Project, a West Side social service provider, to oversee more than $2 million in Neighborhood Recovery Initiative programs in West Garfield Park between 2010 and 2012.

In his role as program coordinator, Cook received more than $146,000 in salary and fringe benefits over a two-year period from Chicago Area Project — pay that was covered through Neighborhood Recovery Initiative funds.

One of the West Garfield Park programs that got Neighborhood Recovery Initiative money through Chicago Area Project was Dream Catchers, of which he is executive director and his wife was identified in state documents as “fiscal manager.” State records show the organization is based in the home they share.

In 2012, Brown voted through a proxy on the Criminal Justice Information Authority board to approve $5 million in state anti-violence grant funding for Chicago Area Project while her husband was getting paid by the organization with state dollars to oversee its anti-violence programming in the West Side neighborhood.

The more recent, $350,000 grant application that Grant submitted on his own last year to the Criminal Justice Information Authority for work at the Magic Johnson Dreamscape Academy called for him to get $52,000 of that overall total in salary, state records show.

Cook, who has not been accused of criminal wrongdoing, did not respond to a message left on his cellphone by the Chicago Sun-Times.