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Natasha Korecki: Gov. Pat Quinn’s anti-violence mess puts squeeze on campaign

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Updated: June 5, 2014 6:39AM



Squeezy the Python’s back.

This time though, the Quinn administration’s cartoon invention looks like it has a different target: the governor himself.

Gov. Pat Quinn originally put forward the python idea to help the public explain the state’s pension obligations.

Squeezy represented Illinois’ pension burden that was so immense it squeezed out the rest of the state’s budget.

We might say Squeezy represents something else these days: Quinn’s troubled $54 million anti-violence program.

In the past week in particular, the daily drumbeat of criticism and investigations of Quinn’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative choked out any other messaging from the Quinn campaign.

The Sun-Times’ political portal, Early & Often, first reported news of two separate inquiries from law enforcement. First was a criminal subpoena from Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, a fellow Democrat. It hit one of Quinn’s agencies asking for information related to the NRI as well as a group that received money from it, the Chicago Area Project.

Then the Sun-Times reported that federal authorities called on the Illinois State Comptroller’s office to turn over records showing how money flowed in and out of the same program that’s been slammed for mismanagement.

Beyond that, there’s Quinn’s Republican gubernatorial opponent, Bruce Rauner, who didn’t hesitate to say the governor was part of a “broken culture” in Illinois. And the Republican Governor’s Association piled on, sending reporters dozens of citations containing negative headlines tied to the two law enforcement inquiries as well as the blistering audit that got all of this going in the first place.

If Quinn’s campaign doesn’t do something drastic — and fast — “Squeezy” will take over.

If there was one trait for which Quinn has always been lauded, it’s his ethics. Quinn’s camp has maintained that if Rauner wanted to go after the corruption angle, then bring it on.

Quinn is squeaky clean, his supporters say, and Rauner has his own skeletons, from convicted insider Stuart Levine on down.

Last week, the two sides traded news releases pointing fingers. Quinn’s campaign brought up allegations of abuse at nursing homes that Rauner has owned.

The Rauner campaign launched the “Pat Quinn corruption hotline,” urging people to call in with tips.

Who would have thought this race so quickly would turn into a contest about who is the least corrupt?

Rauner’s campaign sent one release after another, likening Quinn’s spokesperson’s welcoming of a federal inquiry to a response that imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich gave before he was charged. They tracked every response he gave, pouncing on any contradiction.

Quinn is in damage-control mode and held a series of one-on-one TV interviews Friday, saying he has abolished the agency that ran the program and he would not tolerate impropriety.

Quinn running mate and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, reached Friday, said he could only speak with the OK of the campaign, which later released a response from Vallas. He said Gov. Quinn “puts the best interest of the people of the state first and foremost.”

“The state has 50,000 employees and hundreds of programs and if someone or some contractor does something wrong, the governor immediately fixes it and holds them accountable,” Vallas said in the statement. “He shut down this program two years ago when issues came to light. Let’s not forget though that this anti-violence program emerged during a violence spree that had people calling on the governor to send in the National Guard. Our opponent is just playing politics and distracting from the issue.”

Of course, it wasn’t politics that propelled this issue to the forefront last week but the revelation that two law enforcement agencies are interested in a Quinn-launched program.

Fundamental questions about the anti-violence grant program as well as other state grants remain.

Legislation awaits the Illinois Senate that state Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, is pushing that would require strict, real-time auditing of state grants.

In an interview, Crespo notes 70 percent of the state budget, or $46.9 billion, is made up of grants. Two-thirds of those grants are subject to federal rules.

It’s the “other 30 percent that are subject to loosey-loosey rules, and that’s where we run into problems,” Crespo said.

Among other requirements, the legislation pushes for all grants to be subject to guidelines that mirror federal ones. It also funds a new auditing unit as part of the governor’s budget office that would keep closer tabs on money flowing in and out of the grants. It was Auditor General William Holland, after all, who brought many of these issues to light.

Crespo said the legislation would force more timely auditing to correct issues right away. The legislation also calls for a catalog of every grant out there as well as accountability for agencies awarded state money.

“If there’s an agency that’s found guilty of misuse or fraud, they will be put on a list where they will not be able to get any kind of grants going forward,” Crespo said.

His bill also caps the amount of money that can be used on administrative costs.

Greater oversight and more accountability with how the state handles its grant money generally seem like good, basic requirements to have on the books.

One might ask — with billions of dollars at stake — why weren’t they already?

For more political analysis,
check out Early & Often, at:
politics.suntimes.com.

Email: nkorecki@suntimes.com

Twitter: @natashakorecki



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