As government train wrecks go, the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative makes me think of that old film clip of two locomotives colliding head-on.
As detailed by Illinois Auditor General William Holland, the 2010 Chicago anti-violence program was a spectacular explosion that sent $55 million in taxpayer dollars flying every which way until much of it disappeared into thin air. The August 2010 program has been described as a "slush fund" for Gov. Pat Quinn - a means of dispensing lots of dollars to (a) look like he was taking action against the gun violence that plagued some Chicago neighborhoods in summer 2010 and (b) shore up votes for a tough reelection campaign.
Now Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez has begun a criminal investigation of the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
Reports the Chicago Sun-Times:
A criminal grand jury has launched a probe into Gov. Pat Quinn's troubled anti-violence program - once likened to "a political slush fund" - delivering a major blow to the Democrat as he seeks re-election this fall.
On Tuesday, the Quinn administration turned over 1,000 documents pertaining to the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative to the Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez following a subpoena from her office.
The request was issued to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity on March 19 and sought records tied to the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative - including those for the Chicago Area Project, a program tied to the husband of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown.
Holland's report established firmly that this program fit the dictionary definition of "boondoggle."
But the real problem here is that the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative is merely a symptom of a much greater problem in Illinois government.
We've seen all too often in recent history the results of the state's lax standards for ensuring that the grant money it hands out actually goes toward the purpose it's supposed to serve.
Three weeks ago, a former Illinois Department of Public Health chief of staff Quinshaunta R. Golden pleaded guilty in federal court in Springfield to bribery and kickback charges involving $13 million in grant and contract funds.
Four other individuals are scheduled for trial in a related case in U.S. District Court in June.
This follows the indictments in 2011 of Margaret Davis and Tonja Cook, who between 2005 and 2009 obtained 15 state grants, ostensibly to promote nursing careers through the Chicago chapter of the Black Nurses Association. Instead, they spent $500,000 on personal expenses. They pleaded guilty to mail fraud and money laundering charges.
Former Country Club Hills police chief Regina Evans and her husband Ronald Evans were indicted in 2012 for stealing a 2009 Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity grant worth $1.25 million.
The money was for two nonprofits the couple operated and was purportedly going to toward training bricklayers and electricians and providing GED preparation. The Evanses pleaded guilty to numerous felony counts and are awaiting sentencing. Prosecutors are seeking 10 years for Regina Evans at her May 1 sentencing in federal court in Springfield.
And these are the ones who got caught.
Why can't Illinois get a handle on this?
In 2009, as the Blagojevich scandal was taking the nation by storm, the newly appointed Gov. Quinn formed the 15-member Illinois Reform Commission to help the state avoid the corruption trouble that came to define Blagojevich and his predecessor, George Ryan.
Go look at the report here, and scroll down to page 23, where the commission recommends extensive reform of the state's procurement process. Isn't it time to dig these ideas back up and apply them to the grant process?
I'd be remiss if I didn't throw a reality check in here. The actions described above are outrageous, as is the carelessness and lack of oversight that allowed them to happen. It only reinforces the notion that state government is at best inept and at worst corrupt.
But the amounts abused are in the millions. In the grand scheme of Illinois' broken budget, they total a tiny fraction of the current backlog of unpaid bills - " $5.1 billion. It would take about 93 Neighborhood Recovery Initiatives (if you consider the entire program a waste) to fill that hole.
In other words, don't look to ending these crazy boondoggles as the solution to the state's deep budget trouble.
We'll be keeping an eye on the Cook County State's Attorney's Office and the U.S. Attorneys in both Chicago and Springfield. The previous prosecutions of state grant abusers could pale in comparison to the large-scale fraud hinted at in Holland's report on the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.Matthew Dietrich is Reboot's executive editor. An award-winning journalist, Dietrich is the former editorial page editor of the State Journal Register in Springfield. He believes in holding our politicians accountable. You can find Reboot on Facebook and on Twitter @rebootillinois.