Updated 07/16/14 – 2:26 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS/AP) — Politically tinged bickering among lawmakers looking into fraud and waste in the now-defunct Neighborhood Recovery Initiative overshadowed a hearing on Gov. Pat Quinn’s scandal-plagued anti-violence program.
WBBM Newsradio Political Editor Craig Dellimore reports, even before the Legislative Audit Commission could deal with a request from federal prosecutors to wait 90 days before taking testimony on NRI, a hearing in downtown Chicago was bogged down by partisan debate.
The commission subpoenaed seven former Quinn aides to testify about their roles in how NRI spent $54.5 million in state funds, in light of an audit that concluded the program was poorly managed and misspent money.
Sen. Jason Barickman, the panel’s Republican co-chairman, wanted to highlight that all but one subpoenaed witness failed to appear at the Bilandic Building for the hearing into NRI.
Rep. Frank Mautino, the Democratic co-chair, wanted to move forward. The two tried to speak over each other about whether the panel should defer to federal prosecutors’ request.
Lawyers for witnesses who failed to appear said they were willing to provide documents they might have related to NRI, but won’t testify if federal prosecutors say they shouldn’t. Federal prosecutors have said they don’t object to the Legislative Audit Commission collecting or reviewing documents and records from NRI.
The commission oversees state audits, and must approve a report that found the anti-violence initiative was rife with problems.
A 90-day delay in the panel’s probe would prevent the commission from starting interviews of witnesses until just weeks before the November election, when Quinn faces Republican challenger Bruce Rauner in an already hotly-contested race.
Republicans, who see the gubernatorial election this year as a chance to win control of a Democratic-leaning state, have alleged Quinn used money from the $55 million Neighborhood Recovery Initiative as a political slush fund to secure votes in predominantly minority neighborhoods of heavily Democratic Chicago in a tight race.
Quinn has denied that claim and says he has “zero tolerance” for fraud or abuse. He’s also defended the program’s intent, which was to provide job training and programming in violence-plagued neighborhoods.
Earlier this year, Illinois Auditor General William Holland issued a scathing audit that revealed NRI was so hastily organized and sloppily executed that auditors questioned 40 percent of the $54.5 million in total expenditures claimed by service providers.
Springfield U.S. Atty. James Lewis had asked the panel to hold off calling any witnesses as part of its own probe into allegations of fraud and misspending at NRI, to avoid possibly compromising the ongoing criminal investigation.
Republicans on the panel wanted to put former Quinn administration officials in the spotlight for their roles in running the program.
However, only one of the witnesses showed up, and the rest sent their attorneys in their place. John King, attorney for former NRI head Toni Irving, said she was not going to appear.
“Her intent is to postpone her testimony, and not to risk the obstruction and other issues,” King said.
Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) was upset that most witnesses did not show up for a hearing at the Bilandic Building in Chicago, noting Irving and six other former Quinn aides were subpoenaed to testify.
“As duly elected representatives, I find your advice to your client not to appear to be in contempt,” Brady said.
King said Irving would be willing to provide documents the panel has sought.
WBBM Newsradio’s Mike Krauser reports, before the panel’s meeting, a group of ministers supporting Quinn accused Republican lawmakers of using the investigation for political gain in the governor’s race.
Rev. Michael Pfleger stood in front of the Bilandic Building, where the hearing was taking place, and attacked Republicans for, in his view, playing politics with the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative investigation.
Behind him, to operatives from the Rauner campaign donned costumes – one as convicted former governor Rod Blagojevich in an orange prison jumpsuit, and the other as a character the Rauner campaign calls Quinnochio.
Pfleger blasted the Rauner campaign for sending the two operatives, and called the hearing inside the Bilandic Building nothing more than politically orchestrated theater by Republicans seeking an edge in the governor’s race.
“These are children. My son was killed in 1998 by gun violence. I’ve buried children killed by gun violence. I refuse to let this turn into some political game. To hell with the political game. To hell with this theatrics,” he said. “These are children’s lives. When has Bruce Rauner, when has anybody up there come out to Longwood, to Lawndale, to Englewood, to Auburn-Gresham, and said ‘How do we help?'”
Republicans have accused Quinn of using the $54.5 million in Neighborhood Recovery Initiative grant money for political gain ahead of the 2010 governor’s election.
Quinn has said he shut down NRI in 2012 when concerns about possible misspending arose.
The governor’s office also said it has instructed all state agencies to fully support any law enforcement inquiries. Senate Republican spokeswoman Patty Schuh said Tuesday that Quinn’s office had provided members of the Legislative Audit Commission an estimated 2,000 emails linked to the program.
Quinn, who was traveling to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday for a task force on climate preparedness, signed a new state law that strengthen rules for how the state awards and oversees grants.
“What happened with the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative program was unacceptable and should never happen at any state agency,” he said in a statement. “When I learned of these issues, I took responsibility by defunding the program and shutting it down, and today I am instituting the strongest reforms in the nation.”
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