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American Dream Betrayed

The Problems And Politics Of Pat Quinn's Neighborhood Recovery Initiative

"On Oct. 6, 2010, less than a month before the election, Gov. Pat Quinn stood alongside congressmen Bobby Rush and Danny Davis to announce he was plowing $50 million in state funds into an anti-violence program for Chicago neighborhoods," Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown wrote Tuesday.

"As far as I can tell, the newspapers never even reported it at the time. All I can find are the press releases.

"I have no memory of the announcement myself, but would guess most reporters figured it for an election year repackaging of existing state programs and ignored it. That was probably a mistake on our part."

As far as you can tell? Your memory? Look it up!

I did.

(And "probably" a mistake by reporters who "figured" it was an election-year repackaging of existing state programs? Ho-hum, reporters are so easily bored. They just "figure" stuff. Like, what's the big deal about the state spending $50 million to stop violence in the city? It's "probably" nothing. Oh, gotta go. Another dead kid. Hope she died holding a teddy bear. Now, about that code of silence . . . )

Like I said, I did Brown's job for him - just put the check in the mail, Mark - and looked it up.

*

October 8, 2010, Sun-Times: "Two leading groups fighting violence against women and youth rapped Gov. Quinn Thursday for launching a $50 million anti-violence initiative when Illinois has become the biggest deadbeat state in the country by one new survey.

"We are dismayed and disheartened by the governor's decision to spend $50 million on a new initiative at a time when the state owes millions of dollars to agencies providing critical services and prevention programming in communities across the state," said Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

"Her organization, which distributes funding to 22 rape crisis centers across Illinois, has had its state funding cut 27 percent in the last two years and is owed more than $1.7 million because the state is five months behind in its bills. Because of the funding squeeze, six of those rape-crisis centers may not meet their payrolls by month's end, she said.

"We are confused by the ability to find dollars in our current budget crisis when our local agencies are still waiting to be paid for fiscal year 2010," said Vickie Smith, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

The headline: "Agencies Slam Quinn On Overdue State Bills; They Go Unpaid As He Launches $50 Mil. Program."

This is remarkable context. Quinn was met with derision when he introduced what he called the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative. After all, he had just spent months cutting funding from social service agencies, which all in their own way do a part in addressing youth violence, but not paying the bills already due those agencies. (The latter part we knew; the contrast to new monies found for Quinn's pet project just now comes into focus. Bear in mind, too, that Quinn stood with two congressmen, Rush and Davis to announce the program, not the actual mayor of the actual city benefiting from the money. So, clearly an effort to turn out the black vote.)

Other than that, yes, the media ignored the project.

*

To be fair, let's provide some additional context.

For example, the NRI didn't just spring up one day when Quinn realized he was about to lose the governorship to state Sen. Bill Brady, and that a little walking-around money could be just the thing to put him over the top.

No, the NRI sprung from an anti-violence commission he formed three months prior.

That's not to say it still couldn't have been part of the plan - the timing is exquisite. The commission was asked to submit its findings to the General Assembly when it came back into session that November. Quinn didn't wait.

And what was going on in Chicago at the time?

Much the same as is going on now. Consider this from the Tribune on August 3, 2010:

For the third consecutive day, a top Chicago police official held a briefing for the news media as the department struggles to get out its message that crime isn't out of control despite headline-grabbing stories about the city's daily violence.

On Monday it was Police Superintendent Jody Weis who highlighted that murders have dropped sharply during the past two decades and for the first seven months of 2010 are holding about even with last year. He also noted other violent crimes have plummeted since the early 1990s.

Weis also suggested Chicago not only is battling street gangs but also an image problem when it comes to crime.

"Despite reading the screaming headlines and the nonstop coverage that these violent incidents receive - as well they should - the fact is that the decline in violence over the past two decades is significant," Weis said as he released charts and statistics to prove his point.

Obviously I can't know what was on Quinn's mind at the time, but I do know that I've watched public officials who, time and again, never let a crisis go to waste. Feeling compelled to act in the face of the facts, goaded by reckless and irresponsible media coverage, the "best" of them also see an opportunity to exploit (even if that opportunity comes in the form of dead kids). Those are the times when Chicago becomes the most coincidental city on the planet.

*

Part of Quinn's defense now against charges that he was buying votes is that "No money was distributed to any organization until well after the election."

But that's what makes the whole enterprise a thing of beauty.

If the money had been dispensed, there would be no guarantee that anyone would feel extra motivated to get to the polls.

And if the contracts hadn't yet been let, there'd be no confidence that the money would ever arrive; it would just be another campaign promise waiting to be broken.

But with the contracts out and checks to come after the election, Quinn had set the perfect trap - again, perhaps unwittingly, but boy did that work out sweetly. If you were the recipient of a contract, or even if you were just about to be employed by an agency that was, you sure wanted to see Quinn win. A Brady win could quash the whole deal and leave your pockets empty.

Of course, it's standard operating procedure in America to dole out contracts and other goodies in an election year. It's also wrong; it's a perverse use of our money, and it perverts the policy-making and budget processes.

*

Where did the money come from?

Well, in politics, money can always be found when an elected official wills it, just as finding money for other people's needs and desires is simply mathematically impossible when an elected official wills it.

Consider that in March 2010, seven months before Quinn came up with $50 million for the NRI, "Quinn proposed $2.2 billion in program cuts, $4.7 billion in borrowing and more than $6 billion in unpaid bills being pushed off into the following year."

True, $50 million is the proverbial drop in the bucket compared to those figures, but it's a huge amount to those whose budgets were getting slashed.

And just two months before Quinn formed the NRI, the Tribune reported this:

"Illinois owes its vendors - most of them nonprofits, such as YSP and Cicero's Corazon Community Services - more than $3.7 billion, according the state's comptroller's office.

"Many operate anti-violence programs that have cut back drastically or shut down during the summer months, when violence peaks."

*

In October 2010, the Tribune reported this:

"Nonprofit organizations that serve some of the nation's most vulnerable citizens have been forced to freeze salaries, dip into cash reserves and cut programs because government funding is shrinking and often late in coming, according to a report released Thursday by the Urban Institute. And human service nonprofits in Illinois have been among the hardest hit."

"Nationally, 41 percent of human service nonprofits reported late payments from state, federal and local government sources in 2009, the survey found. In Illinois, that number reached 72 percent, highest in the nation.

"Laurel O'Sullivan, vice president of Chicago-based Donors Forum, said a number of human service nonprofits - which provide services in fields including mental health, child care, housing, food assistance and alcohol and substance abuse - are suffering because of the state's financial turmoil.

"The Land of Lincoln has really become the land of late payments," O'Sullivan said. "There's no honor in balancing the state's budget on the backs of human service providers."

"A spokeswoman for Gov. Pat Quinn said he is committed to making good on payments due to nonprofits. But the state is nearly $5 billion behind on its bills.

"We are working with vendors and providers to expedite payments to the best of our financial ability," said Kelly Kraft.

Right after we kick this $50 million out the door.

*

The Champaign News-Gazette seems to be alone in calling out Quinn in real-time.

Gov. Pat Quinn, with great fanfare, announced this past week a new social program that he said is aimed at strengthening and revitalizing urban communities.

It will provide, among other things, jobs, job training and incentives for business creation. The Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, which pretty much runs the gamut of social intervention into the pathologies of poverty, is the brainchild of a commission Quinn appointed to study and recommend solutions to violence-related issues.

It will cost $50 million, and Quinn said the money will come from a special discretionary fund he controls that is made up of federal and state appropriations.

Republicans have made no secret of their suspicion that Quinn's announcement is aimed as much at shoring up his political support in the cities as addressing real social problems.

It wouldn't be the first time that a politician put his own interests first. But, setting the problematic politics aside, here's why the people of Illinois should be concerned about Quinn's decision.

Illinois is $13 billion in debt, the state's budget is in a shambles and the economy is growing at a snail's pace. The state's revenue picture isn't going to improve in the near future.

Yet the state has embarked on a costly new social spending program even as its unpaid bills continue to pile higher and its promised payments for a variety of public programs and institutions lag behind. In a time when the state should be limiting its ambitions because of a lack of funds, Quinn has expanded them.

The issue is not about the wisdom of this new program. It's about the decision to spend money that Illinois doesn't have.

If the state had unlimited resources, this neighborhood initiative would be worthy of serious consideration. But Illinois is not just broke, it's bankrupt.

When individuals find themselves in a hole like this, the first thing they should do is to stop digging. But Illinois' elected officials won't stop digging.

Running an effective government - be it city, county or state - requires establishing priorities and addressing them with available revenues. Or as former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan said, "There are a lot of great programs, but you can't fund them all."

In other words, elected officials must choose.

During the unfortunate six-year tenure of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, state officials went on a spending spree. Blago was big on new programs and uninterested in how they would be funded. The Illinois House and Senate enthusiastically participated in this spending orgy, apparently preferring not to think about the day the chickens would come home to roost.

Well, the chickens have arrived, and it's a rare day when some new story doesn't come out about the failure of the state to provide promised appropriations to the University of Illinois, local schools all over East Central Illinois, social service agencies organized to address public health issues or domestic abuse problems.

The state can't fund what it has, and it's not paying its bills to service providers. Yet Quinn has shown that he can't resist the temptation, even under these dire circumstances, to spend more money on a new program.

He's effectively saying he can't choose and that means he can't govern because you can't do one without the other.

There's nothing complicated about this. Indeed, it's amazingly simple. When you're in a hole, stop digging. Unfortunately, Quinn wants a bigger shovel.

Now, I happen to believe that social services should be the last area to cut funding, not the first. But you get the idea.

*

Now, let's say you ran one of those anti-violence programs that shut down over the summer because Quinn turned off the spigot through which state dollars trickled. What would have been thinking when you awoke in November to a report like this?

"Circle Family HealthCare Network will soon begin deciding how to dole out about $1.13 million in state funding for a new violence prevention initiative in Austin, and the non-profit wants the community's help.

"State officials chose Circle Family HealthCare Network - which provides medical care at two federally qualified community health centers in Austin and employs about 120 people at six locations - to be the lead agency.

"Groups in 17 other Chicago neighborhoods and several suburbs were named lead agencies and will be responsible for distributing millions of dollars elsewhere."

I'd say that by that time you had caught on. And eventually, for those who weren't clued in from the get-go (including those in the media who brushed off complaints from Republicans), that's what happened.

"The deep cuts to social services spending proposed by Gov. Pat Quinn have left private agencies that work with the state's most vulnerable residents feeling they are being used in a political game," the Tribune reported in February 2011.

"Quinn has enlisted the agencies' support for his 67 percent income tax increase and asked them to apply pressure on the mostly Republican group of lawmakers who have balked at his plan to borrow $8.75 billion to help pay the state's giant backlog of bills."

Again, $50 million isn't much against the backdrop of an $8.75 million borrowing plan. But if $50 million was nothing, why spend it at all?

I can assure you that if you look at it from the receiving end, not the giving end, $50 million is as much money as us ordinary folk imagine it to be.

*

After Quinn squeaked by Brady (separated by some 30,000 votes out of 3.5 million cast), the money started to go out the door.

(One example highlighted at the time by Quinn's PR staff: "Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Director Warren Ribley visited ACCION Chicago today to highlight a new financing tool that will give start-up and existing small businesses the financial bridge they need to succeed coming out of recession.

("A total of $5 million is being made available through the Community Development Fund, a component of Governor Pat Quinn's Neighborhood Recovery Initiative launched in October to help revitalize urban communities.")

Just seven months after announcing the program, the General Assembly tried to take back some of the money.

"Needy college students, impoverished pre-schoolers and those living in crime-infested neighborhoods all would feel the pinch from competing state budget proposals that have now moved from one chamber of the General Assembly to the other," the Sun-Times reported on May 15, 2011.

"The Senate's spending package would all but zero out spending on the Operation Ceasefire anti-violence program, while the House has proposed paring back Quinn's $33.5 million Neighborhood Recovery Initiative he announced last fall by $23.5 million."

And that's the last we heard of the NRI in the local media - with one exception - until February of this year, when state auditor William Holland eviscerated it and touched off the media cycle we're now in.

The exception was this Tribune endorsement in October 2012:

"27th District: Ask Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine to suggest some spending cuts, and you won't get the usual sing-song about eliminating waste, fraud and abuse. Instead, he zeroes right in on some eye-popping outrages. The Grow Your Own Teachers program costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per teacher produced, he says. Funding for the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, a supposed crime-fighting program, largely ended up being spent in not particularly violent neighborhoods just before the 2010 election and there still is no data to show it works."

*

If the NRI worked in any significant way, Quinn might be able to plead that good politics makes for good government. The evidence, however, is not in Quinn's favor.

In December 2012, CNN took a look:

ASHLEY BANFIELD: Part of our ongoing coverage of Chicago's gun violence has been to look at what's being done to stop it which brings us to tonight's report. With killings on the rise, Illinois's governor, Pat Quinn, launched an ambitious anti-violence program two years ago called the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative. And on paper it sounded like a great idea and it really did catch our eye. And then we investigated. And the CNN investigation found some pretty serious questions about whether this was crime prevention or good old-fashioned politics.

Here's investigative correspondent Drew Griffin.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GRIFFIN: Hello? Hello? Anybody here?

This is one of the community organizing groups hired to help reduce violence in Chicago. Part of a $54.5 million initiative, Governor Pat Quinn's Neighborhood Recovery Initiative or NRI, rolled out just before his contentious 2010 election. This group, called the Woodlawn organization, got $1.2 million.

So this is all that's left of the Woodlawn organization. We walked through a front door that was wide open. You can see the equipment is here. This was defunded by the program because they couldn't figure out what they had done with the money.

It was one of about 160 community, church and civic groups that got the NRI money from the state. Now most of the money has run out. Homicides are up and questions are being raised about just what the NRI was really for. To cut crime or save an election?

What we do know is the money was spread out on Chicago's South and Southwest Sides. The idea, get communities involved to stop the violence.

How? On this chilly afternoon, teenagers across Chicago's south side are paid to hand out flyers -

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You have a nice day, sir.

GRIFFIN: - and spread a message of nonviolence. The NRI is credited with creating about 3,500 temporary jobs, mentoring youth and parents, providing re-entry services and counseling in schools. But our four-month investigation found those jobs included handing out flyers, attending yoga class, taking museum field trips, even marching with the governor in a parade. The jobs are now gone.

CNN has taken an extensive look at where the money went, what it did, and most importantly, the timing of how the program was rolled out. The Neighborhood Recovery Initiative began sending money to tough neighborhoods in the City of Chicago right before Chicago voters went to the polls. According to these minutes from a state meeting, a member of the governor's staff promised quote, "allocating some of the funds for this initiative immediately, the rest after the election."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm happy to say that I'm always honest.

GRIFFIN: In October 2010, then lieutenant governor Pat Quinn was struggling to be elected to the job he assumed after the former governor, Rod Blagojevich, was removed from office for misconduct. Quinn, a Democrat, needed a huge turnout in Chicago's heavily Democratic districts on the South Side. That's where critics say the NRI money ended up. The governor won that election by less than one percentage point, but the results on reducing crime? So far there's been 476 murders this year, up nearly 20 percent from 2011.

MATT MURPHY: On its face, it appears to be a waste.

GRIFFIN: Illinois Republican state Senator Matt Murphy.

MURPHY: About a month before the election, at a time when reports everywhere were showing a diminished interest in the election in the governor's base and lo and behold, here he comes with a new state program and millions of dollars to get people interested.

PAT QUINN: It is a lot of baloney. They know that. Matter of fact, people make those charges were running against me. You know, it's all politics.

GRIFFIN: In an early November interview, governor Quinn insisted to CNN the murder rate was so high in the summer of 2010, he had to do something.

QUINN: The City of Chicago is the third largest city in America. I live in Chicago. I live on the West Side. I live in a violent neighborhood. And I know firsthand that you better have government do something about the violence because that's what the people want.

MURPHY: But the murder rate is up 25 percent. Are you saying that the murder rate would be up 30 percent, 35 percent without this program?

QUINN: You take it one year at a time and you try and evaluate the programs and find out what is working, what isn't working so well, and you focus on the things that work well. But, you don't just say we're not going to do anything.

GRIFFIN: Even a member of Quinn's own party though, Democratic state Representative Thaddeus Jones, has questions, asking where are the audits, administration costs and oversight of the many organizations.

We can show you what the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative did that is proof, say organizers, the money was well spent. Teaching teens to change behaviors. And for $8.75 an hour, this is how the teens worked to reduce Chicago's murder rate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This week we're talking about seeking inner peace.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How do you deal with stress.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My topic of this month is about being healthy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Governor Quinn does not miss this parade.

GRIFFIN: And yes, the state confirmed, part of promoting positive messages included paying teens to march with the governor in the annual parade.

Is this the type of thing that you think leads to long-term employment or long-term reduction in violence?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's another way of providing welfare.

GRIFFIN: The director of one of the agencies that received more than $2 million concedes NRI was rushed out without much of a plan.

MICHAEL SHAVER, COO, CHILDREN'S HOME AND AID: Actually, there was a fast and furious nature to it. There was certainly, from the time that the governor, who was running for re-election, announced it, to the time frame to actually put the money in the community.

GRIFFIN: Mike Shaver says the program, modeled in part after a now defunct Philadelphia initiative, did hand out a lot of money but spent little time determining if it was effective.

SHAVER: I have not seen anything that's been produced by the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority that would make a compelling case that this array of programs based upon the model in Philadelphia worked.

GRIFFIN: As we began asking questions of agencies who got the money, we have been getting more and more "no comments." You can't talk? Remember the Woodlawn Organization which received $1.2 million? Anybody here? Hello?

The leader of that group isn't talking, either. An audit by the state agency that ran the program could explain the silence. The state found questionable expenses, a lack of clear accounting, a $10,700 check written to a part-time staff member supposedly to pay a utility bill that they didn't prove was paid.

The state shut down all funding for the organization. The group's attorney tells CNN all documents will be provided to show it did nothing wrong.

I just want to get back to the point of did this program work, governor? As well-intentioned as it was, did it work?

QUINN: Yes, it did. It did work. If it saves one life, it worked.

GRIFFIN: Chicago remains on track to approach 500 murders this year.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD: And Drew Griffin joins me now.

Drew, that last stat - the police superintendent in that city says that just recently things are getting better, that it's actually going down, that the rate is dropping. Has something changed?

GRIFFIN: Well, something has changed, but it wasn't a change of handing out more flyers or going to more yoga classes. According to the police superintendent, the murder rate, which actually was incredibly 66 percent higher earlier this year, has been steadily dropping because the Chicago Police Department has focused on the bad guys. They're arresting more gang members. They're tearing down abandoned buildings. They're putting more and more cops on the streets. That has reduced the pace. But as we reported, Chicago is on pace for a 20 percent higher murder rate this year than last year.

BANFIELD: And what does that mean for this program, the Neighborhood Recovery [Initiative]? Is it kaput?

GRIFFIN: It's still hanging on. It has a much smaller budget, $15 million. It's under a whole new state agency to monitor it. There is a big state audit going on right now to figure out where all of this money went. And get this: According to this new scaled-down program, we are told that quote, "any new jobs would be more traditional employment situations." So it survives a little bit, but not by much.

For example, last summer the NRI was still sponsoring peace marches.

*

In February, state auditor general William Holland released his bombshell.

"The state's top auditor slammed a $54.5 million anti-violence program launched by Gov. Pat Quinn one month before the 2010 election," the Sun-Times reported.

"Auditor General William Holland described the governor's Neighborhood Recovery Initiative as 'hastily implemented' and said it didn't target some of the most crime-prone neighborhoods in Chicago.

"Holland found that Quinn's administration didn't 'adequately monitor' how state grant dollars were spent or on whom; community organizations that hired people with those funds weren't maintaining time sheets; and city aldermen dictated where funding was to be steered.

"'Our audit of the NRI program found pervasive deficiencies in [the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority's] planning, implementation and management of the NRI program,' Holland's audit concluded, referring to the agency Quinn put in charge of running the program."

*

In the last week, Quinn has gone on a media blitz of sorts, hitting the local TV stations to plead his case.

"Gov. Pat Quinn says he takes responsibility for a program that's now under investigation, but he insists he quickly took steps to correct it," CBS2 Chicago reported.

That's not entirely correct, however.

Worse, CBS2 Chicago also reported this:

Quinn said the program sprang from a young man's 2010 shooting death.

"It was a program that was designed to protect the public safety and violence-plagued neighborhoods and to provide jobs for young people, mentoring," the governor says.

Spending records CBS 2 obtained tell a different story. In Maywood, where murders dropped from a high of 10 in 2008 to two in 2009, Quinn's program gave the Village of Maywood millions. In 2010, the Democratic machine in Maywood cranked out more votes for Quinn in 2010 than for Rod Blagojevich both times he won the governor's race.

Quinn OK'd millions to Healthcare Consortium of Illinois, based in Dolton, to dole out funds to worthy groups. A document CBS 2 obtained shows politicians ruled the advisory board.

It included three state representatives, two state senators and Frank Zuccarelli, the powerful supervisor of Thornton Township.

Worse still, Quinn has hit the trifecta: the NRI is now under investigation by the feds, Cook County State's Attorney's Office, and a legislative subcommittee.

*

Back to Mark Brown:

"The governor continued to pat himself on the back Tuesday for shutting down the program in the summer of 2012 when he said he first learned 'it wasn't going in the right direction.'

"'I didn't sweep anything under the rug,' Quinn told reporters.

"Maybe not, but he sure didn't hold a press conference with Rush and Davis or put out a press release to let everyone know what problems he had found in the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, the agency that oversaw his Neighborhood Recovery Initiative."

You mean he didn't spoon-feed the media with accounts of a program it ignored in the first place?

"As to the original concern about the program being used to help Quinn for the 2010 campaign, that's not a clear picture."

Clear enough.

-

Here's Quinn introducing the NRI, as conveyed by his PR team. You can read the press release here or at YouTube (where comments have been disabled).

-

Comments welcome.



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Posted on May 8, 2014


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