Panel must delay testimony into Quinn program

As expected, the legislative hearing on Wednesday into Gov. Pat Quinn's $54.5 million anti-violence program — the program drawing the scrutiny of federal prosecutors — quickly got tied into knots. Lawmakers had a hard time even agreeing on when to break for lunch.

The Legislative Audit Commission sent subpoenas to seven officials, ordering them to appear. Only one showed up. That was Billy Ocasio, a former Chicago alderman and former adviser to Quinn, who told the commission members he wasn't ready to testify.

The others sent lawyers who said their clients really, really wanted to testify but didn't want to impede a federal investigation, thank-you-very-much. So they took a pass.

The commission's hands are tied. The U.S. Department of Justice has requested that the commission wait 90 days before conducting interviews or taking testimony in its inquiry into how money was thrown around in the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.

That's likely to create some frustration because federal prosecutors tend to be methodical. They don't rush things just because an election's coming up.

But ... an election's coming up, and this story isn't going away, even if the commission hits the 90-day "pause" button.

In Tuesday's Tribune, reporters Joe Mahr and Ray Long documented how Neighborhood Recovery Initiative grant money flowed from state coffers into clout-heavy Thornton Township, a Democrat-rich voting base overseen by Frank Zuccarelli, the township supervisor and Democratic committeeman. Nine nonprofits in Thornton Township shared $1.2 million for anti-violence programs.

A nonprofit organization chosen by Quinn's office to oversee the funding in Thornton Township, Healthcare Consortium of Illinois, says three other nonprofits misspent grant money. State auditors in turn have questioned how Healthcare Consortium spent $125,000 to administer the program.

A well-connected church leader, Carl White, steered the grant program to Healthcare Consortium, and he received a $5,000 consulting "retainer" from the group. Healthcare Consortium later gave $1,000 in anti-violence money to White's church's golf outing.

The Tribune found that a Dolton police officer was paid to mentor kids at a time he was supposedly on patrol.

The biggest cut of grant money, $467,000, went to the Thornton Township Youth Committee, run by a top Zuccarelli aide, Jerry Weems. The Better Government Association found that some of the grant money went to pay Weems' salary and to a company owned by one of his relatives.

State auditors and a Tribune review of records found that a Markham nonprofit organization called The Link and Option Center couldn't account for at least $77,000 of $371,000 it received to spend in Thornton and Rich townships.

And a Tribune investigation last month highlighted how taxpayer money went to a clout-heavy but financially unstable Woodlawn nonprofit organization that went out of business and now owes the state $238,000.

Clearly, money in the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative flowed with little or no accountability around the time of Quinn's re-election in 2010.

Quinn says he disbanded the program as soon has he learned of problems. His administration is trying to get some of the money back.

Lawmakers have little choice now but to abide by the U.S. attorney's request that they don't conduct interviews. If they pursue this, their subjects are just going to refuse. Federal prosecutors have not, though, tried to curb the lawmakers' investigation of documents related to the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.

There's more to learn.

And probably more to come.

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