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Panel votes to subpoena ex-director of Quinn anti-violence program

A panel of lawmakers reviewing Gov. Pat Quinn’s botched $55 million anti-violence program delivered yet another political blow to the re-election seeking Democrat, voting Monday to subpoena seven former state officials who helped create and run the now-defunct Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.

The move initially was aimed at forcing Barbara Shaw, the former director of the program, to testify before the Legislative Audit Commission next month. But Democrats seeking to prevent a summer-long embarrassment for Quinn pushed to expand the scope of the subpoenas, arguing lawmakers should hear from those involved at once instead of over the course of several months.

Republicans eventually agreed to go along, though Sen. Jason Barickman of Bloomington argued Democrats were trying to orchestrate a “rush job.”

Lawmakers are peeling apart a stinging February report by Auditor General William Holland that said Quinn’s anti-violence program was hastily implemented and had inadequate oversight. The program also has attracted the attention of Cook County and federal authorities.

Republicans have characterized the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative as a slush fund intended to help Quinn win votes in predominantly Democratic areas of the city’s South and West sides amid a bruising 2010 election campaign. Quinn has scoffed at that suggestion, arguing the program’s intentions were good.

The subpoenas must first be signed off on by Barickman and the Democratic co-chair of the commission, Rep. Frank Mautino of Spring Valley. A spokesman for Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan said Mautino was expected to sign the paperwork Tuesday.

Meanwhile, an attorney representing Shaw said it was too soon to say if she would testify before the panel.

“At this point I haven’t seen the subpoena, I expect that I will very shortly and when I see it and talk to my client we will review what options we have,” attorney John Theis said. “There are still some matters that we have to consider on how we plan to approach this.”

Theis would not comment on whether Shaw has been subpoenaed in the state or federal probes.

Additional officials subpoenaed to testify before lawmakers include former Quinn chief of staff Jack Lavin, former deputy chief of staff Toni Irving, former chief operating officer Andrew Ross, former head of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Warren Ribley, former head of the Department of Central Management Services Malcolm Weems, and former Quinn senior adviser Billy Ocasio, who also is a former Chicago alderman. None could be reached for comment Monday.

Before Monday’s meeting, Quinn shrugged off the possibility of subpoenas being issued. He defended the need for the anti-violence program, pointing to continued violence throughout Chicago.

“We've got to make sure we have strong efforts to combat the violence, to protect the people, and especially young people, having the opportunity to have an alternative to being in a gang,” Quinn said.

Republicans argue they aren’t opposed to those efforts, but want to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely and similar mistakes aren’t made in the future.

“Our job today is to review that audit fully and thoroughly and begin to give the public confidence that we are being prudent with their dollars,” Barickman said.

The issue has served as campaign fodder for Quinn’s Republican challenger, Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner. Democrats sought to protect Quinn as much as possible Monday, arguing it was time to move on and find fixes instead of rehashing what went wrong.

“This isn’t something we wanted to drag out and make a political circus of this,” said Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island. “No one is disputing the issues that come with the NRI program, and there’s two investigative bodies already investigating. So at the end, what are we trying to do?”

Lawmakers have questioned how the price tag for the program more than doubled from $20 million, why groups that received grant money were never inspected and whether there’s proof the money did anything to reduce violence.

Meanwhile, State's Attorney Anita Alvarez has sought specific documents related to the Chicago Area Project, which received a grant under the program that was used in part to hire Benton Cook III, the husband of Cook County Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown. A grand jury also is looking into a land deal involving Brown and Cook, while state regulators have demanded Cook stop representing that he is a clinical psychologist, saying he doesn't have a license.

mcgarcia@tribune.com
Twitter @moniquegarcia

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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