Attorneys for former top staff members of Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration said Wednesday their clients have no intention to testify before a lawmaker panel investigating the governor’s scandal-ridden Neighborhood Recovery Initiative program so long as federal prosecutors object.
Jon King, the attorney for ex-Quinn deputy chief of staff Toni Irving, told the Legislative Audit Commission Wednesday that Irving did not intend to testify now, despite being subpoenaed by lawmakers. He saida federal prosecutor had asked lawmakers not to call witnesses before their panel during the next 90 days to avoid possibly impeding an ongoing criminal investigation.
“Her belief is it would be inappropriate to do so in light of the Department of Justice investigation,” said King, who also told the panel his client does not intend to plead the 5th Amendment.
Related: Pols find way to agree on probe delay — without reaching agreement Five things to know about the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative
Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, called Irving’s refusal to testify “an affront to the people of Illinois” and said her unwillingness to personally appear before the panel rose to the level of “contempt.”
Attorneys for Barbara Shaw, the former director of the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, and Jack Lavin, the governor’s former chief of staff, said their clients also had no intention of testifying for the same reason.
If concerns with prosecutors could be ironed out, Lavin attorney Thomas Moore said his client “would be glad to share his rather limited involvement in this program” with the panel.
The lawyers’ statements came during a politically stoked, daylong hearing marked by hours of legislative bickering over how to proceed in dissecting findings from a state audit that have become a defining issue in the gubernatorial campaign between Quinn and Republican Bruce Rauner.
Both Democrats and Republicans on the equally split, 12-member audit panel eventually appeared to agree in principle to honor a request from Springfield-based U.S. Attorney James Lewis, whose office is heading up the NRI investigation. On Tuesday, Lewis asked lawmakers to delay testimony for 90 days to avoid posing “substantial risks to our ongoing criminal investigation.”
State Sen. John Mulroe, D-Chicago, said the commission owed it to the “people of America … to get out of the way and let federal investigators do their job. It’s pretty much a no-brainer to me.”
But the panel’s members became bogged down over when and how to compel the seven subpoenaed former members of Quinn’s inner circle to appear after Lewis’ 90-day window to explain their parts in the rollout and implementation of the 2010 Quinn program.
Republicans wanted to schedule hearings on Oct. 7 and 8 to hear testimony so long as federal prosecutors didn’t renew their opposition. Democrats rejected that plan, killing it.
Democrats countered with their own plan to hear witness testimony Oct. 10, but they wanted the hearing to occur only if prosecutors formally granted permission. Republicans torpedoed that idea.
The panel intends to reconvene Thursday in a bid to see if middle ground can be struck on when to compel witnesses to appear. Both Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, and Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, the co-chairs of the audit commission, agreed to speak with Lewis Thursday on the scheduling question.
“What we’re arguing about is I think the chairman and I should give the feds a call 10 days beforehand. I’m fine with that. And if they say we’ve completed our investigation, go ahead, then we can go back,” Mautino said.
“I was concerned about some of the other motions that were made because if the feds aren’t done and ask us for additional time or say you can’t have these witnesses, then you get to witness what you saw today again,” he said, referring to Wednesday’s helping of political acrimony.
Barickman, meanwhile, called the Democratic plan to proceed with testimony only if prosecutors green-light it unrealistic.
“I think the concerns are that that’s not the normal procedure of the U.S. attorney’s office. They don’t give you a letter that says please proceed with whatever you were working on,” Barickman said.
“There are concerns raised by certain members here that they’re not sure what happens in 90 days,” he continued. “And the U.S. attorney’s office has made it very clear that if they need more time, they’ll let us know.”
Regardless of what deal, if any, gets struck, the stakes for Quinn are high. The governor faces the prospect of having a public spectacle just weeks before the Nov. 4 election of having his ex-aides questioned publicly on a program that arguably has become the governor’s biggest political liability since taking office.
Wednesday’s hearing unfolded with Quinn out of the state, but that didn’t stop the governor from pushing back. Early in the day, Quinn sent out a short statement over his Twitter account disavowing what had been one of his showpiece programs.
“What happened with the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative program was unacceptable & should ever happen at any state agency,” the governor tweeted.
Quinn made that statement as he announced his signing Wednesday of what he called “landmark legislation” pushed by state Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, to beef up auditing of state grants and to impose tougher conflict-of-interest disclosure requirements on contractors and subcontractors, among other things.
Before the hearing even began Wednesday, the Rev. Michael Pfleger sent a message to lawmakers not to interfere with the federal investigation by calling witnesses before the state commission.
“C’mon out to Englewood,” Pfleger said outside the Michael A. Bilandic Building, where the legislative panel was meeting. “C’mon out to Lawndale. C’mon out to Auburn-Gresham.”
“Let the Justice Department do their job,” Elder Kevin Anthony Ford said.
Pfleger, of Saint Sabina Church in the Gresham neighborhood, and Ford, of St. Paul Church of God in Christ Community Development Ministries in Bronzeville, alleged Downstate lawmakers were using the program as political theater while doing little to actually address the bloodshed on the streets of Chicago.
An audit of Quinn’s anti-violence initiative showed Pfleger’s Saint Sabina owed $222,766 it received through Quinn’s program. Pfleger insisted it had been paid back and said, “let the auditors come talk to our lawyers.”
“I … absolutely have no problems with defending anything we did,” Pfleger said. “None.”