SPRINGFIELD — Republicans vowed Wednesday to keep pressing ahead on a legislative probe into Gov. Pat Quinn’s failed 2010 Neighborhood Recovery Initiative after gaining little clarity from an administration official about how the governor’s $54.5 million anti-violence program unraveled.
“To me, what’s clear is we’ve only scratched the surface on how this total waste of taxpayer dollars happened,” said Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Champaign, co-chairman of a legislative panel that spent half the day Wednesday poring over a scathing February audit of Quinn’s program.
The bipartisan panel heard testimony for the first time on Auditor General William Holland’s audit of the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative. Holland called it a “hastily implemented” election-year program that had scant oversight over how millions of state grant dollars were spent and little to no effect on curbing street violence.
“There is a failure in the planning, implementation and management throughout this entire program,” Holland told the commission.
Even Democrats on the bipartisan panel joined Holland in condemning the Quinn program.
“There isn’t anybody on this commission that doesn’t agree with the auditor general that this program during its entire existence…had a myriad of problems that cost taxpayer dollars [and] did not do what it was supposed to do in communities,” said Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, the co-chair of the audit commission.
Quinn’s now-disbanded anti-violence program is under state and federal investigation and threatens to be a damaging political weight for the governor in a tight re-election bid this year against Republican Bruce Rauner.
This year, the Chicago Sun-Times has laid out a series of serious shortcomings with the program, focusing on those who were able to pocket state grant funds – from clout-heavy social-service providers to gang members to the spouses of an Illinois lawmaker and Cook County Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown, who herself appeared to be part of an organization that got money from the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
The only witness to come before the audit panel Wednesday was Jack Cutrone, the executive director of the state Criminal Justice Information Authority that in early 2013 absorbed the state agency Quinn put in charge of his anti-violence program.
But Cutrone shed little light on the internal thinking within Quinn’s administration as it was quickly launching the program during the late summer and early fall of 2010, only weeks before the November gubernatorial election, which Quinn narrowly won.
At one point during several hours of grueling testimony, Cutrone was pressed on what he knew about the involvement in the program of Quinn’s former deputy chief of staff, Toni Irving, who now oversees anti-violence programming for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Barickman asked Cutrone if he had “any conversations with Ms. Irving about the failure to have any documentation suggesting those original communities and agencies may not be appropriate for such a large expenditure of taxpayer dollars.”
Cutrone answered that he hadn’t become aware of the severity of problems with the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative until October 2013, when he first saw a preliminary audit from Holland’s office.
“It was not until that time that I became aware of the extent of issues with the [Violence Prevention Authority’s] administration of the program. By that time, Dr. Irving had left state service. So no, I never had such a conversation with her,” Cutrone said.
Cutrone served as an ex-officio member of the Violence Prevention Authority’s advisory board but acknowledged he focused little on that board’s inner workings, typically sending a proxy to represent him.
Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, questioned Cutrone on whether he himself bore any responsibility for overseeing the Violence Prevention Authority’s actions given that he had a seat on its advisory board, along with others, including Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who was the board’s co-chairman.
“I’d agree as a board member, I’m ultimately responsible, yes,” Cutrone told Crespo.
Cutrone’s appearance Wednesday was heavily choreographed by the governor’s office, according to testimony.
Cutrone testified that he had met twice during the past two weeks to discuss his appearance with Quinn’s senior staff, including the governor’s general counsel, communications staff and deputy chief of staff.
“Did the governor’s office sign off on your response?” Barickman asked him.
“Yes,” Cutrone answered.
Cutrone also was pressed on why one of the main social-service providers in the program, Chicago Area Project, was allowed to continue receiving state grant money when it owed the state funds from earlier grants. Since Holland’s audit and several Sun-Times reports, Quinn ordered a internal review of all of Chicago Area Project’s state grants.
On Sunday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Chicago Area Project owes state government $214,214 after being unable to substantiate its billings to the state from a 2008 summer-jobs program that drew attention from federal investigators in 2010.
Internal audits at the Illinois Department of Transportation, which oversaw the jobs program, identified those overbillings in early 2010, yet the non-profit still received commitments for millions of new state grant dollars months later under the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
“Where I’m confused here, puzzled, is the notion we have agencies who owe use money, yet I can go to the comptroller’s database and see that Chicago Area Project has some $6 million in grants from [the Criminal Justice Information Authority] today,” Barickman told Cutrone. “I’m not saying it’s your fault. I’m just saying it appears to be the fault of the state to continue to award dollars to agencies that owe us money.”
Cutrone’s agency was set earlier this month to grant another $5 million in funds to Chicago Area Project. The General Assembly had appropriated the money but the agency has since put the brakes on that award.
“It was at that point some of the questions were being posed, and we postponed consideration as a result,” Cutrone said, explaining that decision.
Chicago Area Project, which provided anti-violence programming under the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative in West Garfield Park and Grand Boulevard, hired Brown’s husband, Benton Cook III, as a program coordinator, paying him more than $146,000 in pay and fringe benefits with state grant dollars. Cook’s own non-profit wound up getting roughly $3,300 in NRI money before being asked by Chicago Area Project to return about $1,700 of that amount.
After the hearing, Barickman made clear he wants to hear testimony from Barbara Shaw, the former head of the Violence Prevention Authority; Irving; and former Central Management Services director Malcolm Weems, who played a role in the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative’s launch.
“We certainly didn’t get the answers we need to have,” Barickman said. “It wasn’t my decision to have Mr. Cutrone sent. The governor’s office chose to send him here. Clearly, he has no idea how this program was created. He has no idea how the decisions were made. But that’s the questions we’ve got to get answers to.”
“We’ll pull emails from Ms. Irving, Mr. Weems. We’ll bring in Ms. Shaw, and we go from there,” Barickman continued.
Mautino said he spoke last Friday with Shaw, who left the state payroll in October 2012, and she is amenable to appearing before the committee.
Mautino said he wasn’t clear when the panel would next meet, though he hoped it would be soon to focus on how to prevent future missteps like this by the administration and to help keep the issue from devolving into campaign fodder.
“Something like this is better to do sooner rather than later. It gives you the answers, and hopefully stops political circuses that can lend themselves to issues,” Mautino said. “This is a screwed-up audit. We know it’s screwed up.”