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Nurse to feds: State grants went to politicians’ campaigns

Former state Sen. Rickey Hendon.  |  Seth Perlman~AP file photo

Former state Sen. Rickey Hendon. | Seth Perlman~AP file photo

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Updated: July 6, 2012 8:44AM

“Thousands of dollars” in state grants awarded to bolster health care in minority communities instead went to pay campaign workers for former state Sen. Rickey Hendon and Democratic candidates Hendon supported, a Chicago nurse has told investigators.

The nurse, Tonja Cook, 44, detailed her allegations in four interviews with state and federal authorities between October 2010 and May 2011, records show.

In June 2011, federal prosecutors in Springfield charged Cook and another Chicago nurse, Margaret A. Davis, with siphoning $500,000 from state grant funds for Davis’ “personal use.”

Hendon, 58, a West Side Democrat who unexpectedly retired from the Senate in February 2011, hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing.

But the former legislator and 27th Ward alderman — nicknamed “Hollywood” for his entertainment-industry career aspirations — is named in reports the investigators wrote after their interviews with Cook.

Those previously undisclosed reports portray Hendon, along with his political organization, as the beneficiary of state grant funds that Hendon helped obtain for the Chicago Chapter of the National Black Nurses Association, which Davis and Cook helped run.

Davis, 60, was program director for the not-for-profit organization, which got a $460,000 state grant to train minority nurses in 2006 with Hendon’s sponsorship in the Illinois Senate, an aide to Senate President John J. Cullerton told the Chicago Sun-Times.

The black nurses group also got more than $500,000 in other health-related state grants from the administration of now-imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, state records show.

Cook, who was the association’s treasurer, told authorities Davis would use money from those grants to “give as much as $500 in cash to as many as 10 individuals attending the weekly Monday meetings at the campaign offices of Hendon to go out and conduct campaign work for Hendon and other local politicians,” according to the investigators’ reports.

Those reports were supposed to have been filed under seal but were included, apparently inadvertently, in the online court records for the criminal case against Davis and Cook. They are now under seal.

“Cook said she and Davis would meet with Rickey Hendon and discuss state grants” and “attend political fund-raisers for mainly Hendon,” the reports say.

“Davis told Cook to ‘donate to Hendon because he is helping us,’ ” the investigators quote Cook as telling them.

They say Cook told them that, on four or five occasions in the summer of 2006, “Davis instructed Cook to cash checks to generate thousands of dollars in cash from the grants.

“Grant funds were used to pay for political work to help certain candidates like Hendon,” outgoing Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Patricia Horton, “an alderman from the West Side of Chicago possibly named Ed Smith or Ed Williams, a judge whose name she could not recall at this moment and possibly others,” the reports say. “Davis herself usually paid the political workers in cash but did not obtain receipts.”

Cook’s lawyer, Scott Sabin, didn’t return calls.

Hendon’s attorney, James D. Montgomery, and Davis’ attorney, Thomas Wilmouth, declined to comment.

Neither Ed Smith, who resigned as 28th Ward alderman in November 2010, nor Horton, who lost her bid for reelection in the March Democratic primary, responded to requests for comment.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Springfield had no comment.

U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), another West Side politician, knows Hendon and Margaret Davis, who is no relation.

“Margaret was a part of Rickey’s political group and would be at Rickey’s meetings,” the congressman says. “Sometimes, I would go and address the group.”

Danny Davis says he doesn’t buy Cook’s allegations regarding Hendon.

“I think he’s too smart, and would have always been too smart, for that,” the congressman says.

Federal prosecutors unsealed the indictments against Davis and Cook last July. Davis is charged with 14 counts of mail-fraud and two of money-laundering. Cook is charged with a single count of mail fraud.

They are scheduled to go on trial Sept. 4 in federal court in Springfield, though Davis’s lawyer is attempting to have them tried separately.

According to her indictment, Davis used her roles with the Black Nurses Association and two other health-care groups to obtain 15 state grants and contracts, totaling more than $1 million, between December 2005 and March 2009, and, with Cook’s help, “did convert as much as $500,000 or more of the grant and contract funds to the personal use and benefit of defendant Davis.”

The $460,000 minority-nurses training grant sponsored by Hendon came from the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, then headed by Jack Lavin, who’s now Gov. Pat Quinn’s chief of staff. Another $577,473 in grants Davis obtained came from the state’s Department of Public Health, when it was headed by Dr. Eric E. Whitaker, a longtime friend of President Barack Obama, and Whitaker’s successor, Dr. Damon Arnold, the Sun-Times previously has reported. There is no indication that Whitaker, Arnold or Lavin are targets of any investigation.

Since leaving the Senate, Hendon has begun drawing a state pension of $67,101 a year.

Though he no longer holds elective office, Hendon has been doing political consulting work for candidates including: state Sen. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago), his successor in the Senate who lost her reelection bid in the March Democratic primary; state Senate candidate Napoleon Harris; state House candidate Elgie Sims; and Cook County Judges Peter Vilkelis, Lorna Propes and Deborah Gubin.

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