Feds to lawmakers: Don’t question NRI witnesses for 90 days

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SPRINGFIELD — The Justice Department has asked state lawmakers to wait 90 days beforecalling several former members of Gov. Pat Quinn’s inner circle to testify on the governor’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative to avoid possibly interfering with an ongoing federal probe of the scandal-tainted anti-violence program, a ranking Republican lawmaker said Wednesday.

“We do not want to impede their efforts or compromise the integrity of their criminal investigation,” said state Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, co-chair of the Legislative Audit Commission that was set to hear testimony from Quinn’s former aides on July 16 and 17. “Therefore, I believe it is appropriate for the Legislative Audit Commission to consider the request and its scope.”

Barickman said the verbal request came from two staff attorneys and an intern inthe Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs in Washington, D.C., and not directly from the federal prosecutor’s office in Springfield, which would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the request.

The trio from the Justice Department“requested that no interviews of those connected to Gov. Quinn’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative program be conducted for 90 days,” Barickman said in a late-afternoon prepared statement.

If the Legislative Audit Commission agrees to the request, a delay could set up a potentially devastatingscenario for Quinn where the bipartisan panel hears possibly explosive testimony in mid-October, just weeks before the Nov. 4 election between him and Republican rival Bruce Rauner, who has hit the governor repeatedly on the botched rollout and implementation of the 2010 anti-violence program.

What makes the Department of Justice request somewhat unusual is that when ongoing state inquiries have skirted too closely to parallel probes by federal investigators, the requests to stand down historically have come from federal prosecutors themselves – not the Justice Department’s lobbying arm.

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In December 2008, for example, former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald asked a House panel probing the impeachment of ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich not to call two members of President Barack Obama’s administration to testify, suggesting such a move would “interfere” with the federal investigation into Blagojevich.

In 2006, Fitzgerald himself also asked Attorney General Lisa Madigan to shut down a state investigation her office was heading into alleged hiring improprieties under Blagojevich, again saying the state probe could interfere with what then was an ongoing federal investigation.

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney James Lewis, who oversees the Central District of Illinois, would neither confirm nor deny that a Justice Department request was made of the audit commission not to hear testimony at its July 16NRI hearing.

One former federal prosecutor, Jeffrey H. Cramer, said it’s not surprising the feds would want to shut down a state investigation to safeguard their own probe and pointed to Blagojevich as an example where federal prosecutors did not want to risk having potential criminal witnesses say or do something before a legislative panel that might undermine a federal case.

“You want to control what’s on paper with their statements,” Cramer said ofpotential criminal witnesses. “If they’re on record and you as a prosecutor aren’t the one asking questions but instead it’s a politician, that makes it kind of unwieldy.”

But Cramer found it unusual that the request came from the Department of Justice’s lobbying arm and not from the federal prosecutor actually heading up the investigation.

“That’s odd. That’s not what legislative affairs does. It’s usually not their bailiwick. I’m hard-pressed to think of another time when that office has made this request,” said Cramer, who was a federal prosecutor in Chicago between 2000 and 2009 and now heads the Chicago office of Kroll, Inc., an international intelligence and information-management company.

“It is odd it’s a verbal request from DOJ versus being in writing,” he continued. “I’m not sure you can make anything of that, but it certainly is strange.”

A spokeswoman for Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who has her own investigation underway involving the now disbanded anti-violence program, declined comment late Wednesday when asked if her office had received a similar request to halt or suspend her probefrom President Barack Obama’s administration.

Wednesday’s disclosure represented the latest development in the fast-moving triple-pronged investigation into Quinn’s showpiece anti-violence program.

Last week, on the eve of the busy July 4th holiday when public attention was most focused on backyard barbecues and fireworks, the governor’s office leaked a federal subpoena it had received from federal prosecutors in Springfield. The mid-May subpoena soughtemails dating back to January2010from five former administration officials involved in the creation and implementation of the NRI program.

Both Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, and Barickman had signed off on calling seven witnesses to testify about thenow-disbanded,$54.5 million program, including three individuals whose names were on the federal subpoena.

Mautino and Barickman had agreed to hear testimony from Quinn’s one-time chief of staff, Jack Lavin; the governor’s ex-deputy chief of staff, Toni Irving; his former senior advisor Billy Ocasio; former Central Management Services director Malcolm Weems, and the one-time head of the now-defunct state agency that implemented NRI, Barbara Shaw. Irving, Shaw and Weems were named in the subpoena.

Mautino did not return phone calls from the Sun-Times on Wednesday.

Two former Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity administrators also have been subpoenaed to testify on July 16.

Jane Stricklin, executive director of the Legislative Audit Commission, confirmed that six of the seven potential witnesses had been served subpoenas but acknowledged difficulty in tracking down Ocasio, a former city alderman who left his $125,000-a-year post in the governor’s office in May 2011.“I cannot actually confirm at this moment if the Ocasio subpoena has been served,” Stricklin said, describing Ocasio as “hard to reach.”Stricklin said she spoke briefly to Ocasio about the commission’s desire for him to testify, and he referred her to his lawyer, who then never responded to her.Of the others who did respond, Stricklin said she was unclear to what extent any of them will be willing to testify if the mid-month hearing proceeds as planned.“I don’t know if they’re willing to testify,” she said.

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