SPRINGFIELD — Republicans balked Thursday at a federal request to delay testimony next week from several former members of Gov. Pat Quinn’s inner circle who were subpoenaed by a legislative panel to discuss their roles in the governor’s botched $54.5 million Neighborhood Recovery Initiative program.
Neither House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, nor the GOP co-chair of the Legislative Audit Commission showed any willingness to adhere to the request from President Barack Obama’s administration to block questioning of seven subpoenaed witnesses for 90 days.
The Chicago Sun-Times first reported Wednesday that the Department of Justice’s Office of Legislative Affairs made a verbal request to the audit panel to suspend testimony so as not to hinder an ongoing federal criminal probe into the 2010 Quinn anti-violence grant program.
On Thursday, that request was followed up by a letter signed by a top aide to Attorney General Eric Holder, Assistant Attorney General Peter J. Kadzik, who asked the two co-chairs of the audit commission to stand down in seeking testimony from the witnesses.
“There is an ongoing related federal criminal investigation, and we believe such interviews and testimony during this time period would pose substantial risks to our investigation,” Kadzik wrote. “We are not at this time asking the commission to defer the collection or disclosure of records gathered in the course of its work.”
State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, co-chair of the 12-member Legislative Audit Commission, offered no sign he was willing to abide by the federal government’s request.
“We certainly do not want to impede their criminal investigation of the NRI program,” he said. “However, we also have legislative duties and obligations that we must fulfill to the people of Illinois and our constituents.
“Each member of the Audit Commission — myself included — will have to weigh those competing interests to determine whether we change course on a public review of how more than $55 million in taxpayers’ money was spent,” he said.
Last month, Barickman and the ranking Democrat and co-chair of the audit panel, state Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, struck a deal to subpoena a line-up of former key advisors to the governor who were responsible for the roll-out and implementation of the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
Among those expected to testify were Quinn’s former chief of staff, Jack Lavin; the governor’s former deputy chief of staff, Toni Irving; Quinn’s former senior advisor Billy Ocasio; former Central Management Services Director Malcolm Weems; and Barbara Shaw, the former executive director of the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, the now-defunct agency Quinn put in charge of the program.
Two other former lead administrators from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity also were on the list of those being subpoenaed.
Mautino avoided returning phone calls for a second straight day Thursday to shed any light on how Democrats think the process should unfold next week, when the subpoenaed witnesses are scheduled to begin being heard at a July 16 hearing.
Likewise, a spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, remained silent on the matter, as well.
Durkin, meanwhile, said the testimony should occur as planned and stressed that Holder’s aide indicated the federal government would take no legal action to prohibit the Legislative Audit Commission from hearing witnesses.
“There has been a lot of work on this matter going back to almost two or three years. This committee has been working very methodically and proficiently to do what they are charged to do: That’s to ask questions about audits that are of concern to taxpayers in Illinois,” Durkin said. “The position of the Republican Caucus is that the hearing scheduled for next week should proceed as planned.”
Republicans have questioned the manner in which the federal request was made to the Audit Commission from what amounts to the lobbying arm of the Department of Justice, rather than from the federal prosecutor in Springfield leading the NRI investigation.
In December 2008, then U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald asked the House committee probing the impeachment of Gov. Rod Blagojevich not to call two top Obama advisors to testify in Springfield.
And in 2006, Fitzgerald asked Attorney General Lisa Madigan to halt an investigation her office was conducting into alleged hiring improprieties under Blagojevich, citing a parallel federal investigation into the matter.
Barickman, meanwhile, said the Legislative Audit Commission took legal action in subpoenaing the seven witnesses, and that can’t be changed without first surveying the commission’s 12 members. The panel is split even politically, heightening the potential of a deadlock on the question.
“This legislative action cannot — and should not — be undone with the sweep of a hand or a back-door meeting. Only legislative action can rescind those efforts,” he said.
“Unless [the] Legislative Audit Commission takes new legislative action to change course, then I presume the Audit Commission will proceed with the plan laid out through its bipartisan, transparent process,” he said.
Dave McKinney reported from Springfield. Tina Sfondeles reported from Chicago