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Lawmakers to allow subpoenas

Critics liken Quinn’s troubled program to ‘political slush fund’

Published: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn speak to reporters Tuesday outside the Capitol in Springfield after a legislative commission that helps review the use of public money voted to grant itself subpoena powers to investigate Quinn's troubled anti-violence program.

SPRINGFIELD (AP) – Gov. Pat Quinn’s troubled anti-violence program faces another layer of scrutiny after a legislative panel approved subpoena powers for itself Tuesday to dig into how the program’s money was spent before and after Quinn’s election campaign in 2010.

The bipartisan committee acted as more details emerged about Quinn’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, with a prominent Democrat, Cook County Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown, acknowledging that she worked for a nonprofit founded by her husband that received money through it.

The Legislative Audit Commission, which helps review the use of public funds, voted 10-1 in favor of the rarely used maneuver to look into the 2010 program, which critics have likened to a “political slush fund.” Already it is the subject of a scathing state auditor’s report for mismanagement and spending as well as federal and Cook County probes.

“We’ve got to get to the bottom of this,” said State Sen. Jason Barickman, a Bloomington Republican on the committee.

Barickman did not detail how he wanted the panel to proceed on the matter, but spoke of gathering a list of witnesses who could testify about it.

The committee’s vote followed Brown’s acknowledgement that she had worked as an unpaid accountant for her husband’s Dream Catchers Community Development Corp. Benton Cook’s program contracted with Chicago Area Project, which oversaw organizations receiving money through the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.

The Chicago Sun-Times first reported the connection. The newspaper also has reported that Cook had a prior financial crime conviction, which prompted Quinn’s administration to launch an internal review last week.

Dream Catchers was awarded thousands of dollars, but its contract closed in 2011 after the Chicago Area Project learned of a potential conflict of interest with Cook also being paid by it to oversee other programs.

The anti-violence program has dogged Quinn during his re-election campaign against Republican businessman Bruce Rauner, who has used it to try to discredit Quinn’s reputation for maintaining a relatively scandal-free administration after two predecessors were imprisoned.

Quinn has defended his actions in connection with the program, saying he identified problems before the auditor’s report earlier this year and disbanded the agency that ran it. He has said he was surprised by Brown’s involvement and did not know of Cook’s criminal record ahead of news reports last week.

“We have to look into it, all of us do, to make sure that nothing wrong was going on,” Quinn said after an unrelated event in Springfield.

However, he called the committee’s move Tuesday “politics as usual” just months ahead of the November election.

Critics, including Barickman, have accused Quinn of using the money for the program to shore up support ahead of the 2010 election. Quinn’s office has said no money was spent before he won office.

The audit commission’s move was rare. It has only once given itself permission to issue subpoenas in the last 30 years.

Four Democrats voted for the measure, while stressing that the new power should also be used to scrutinize other agencies.

“I only see value [in this] if we apply this to other audits,” state Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat, said citing pervasive problems at the Department of Children and Family Services, among other agencies.

Meanwhile, Brown defended the work of her husband, a clinical psychologist she said was recruited by Chicago Area Project to work on Quinn’s initiative in 2011. She said he took the job to help combat violence in a neighborhood where he was born.

“I proudly support my husband’s commitment to reaching out to and helping at-risk youth,” she wrote in an emailed statement.

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