Legislative Audit Commission completes first day of NRI testimony

Lawmakers are still trying to determine the full story of the birth of Governor Pat Quinn’s failed Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, after a full day of questioning former officials from the Governor’s staff. The bipartisan Legislative Audit Commission (LAC) questioned the former executive director of the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority (IVPA), the agency that initially oversaw NRI. Barbara Shaw vigorously defended the nature of the NRI program itself, but acknowledged that there were certainly problems and issues with NRI.

“It’s clear that Barbara Shaw is passionate about the cause of violence prevention,” said State Senator Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington). “But the issues with NRI have cast a negative light on that very cause.”

Illinois Auditor General William Holland also testified again before the panel, and took part in questioning witnesses. Holland honed in on fund transfers involved with NRI, stating that they bypassed legislative oversight, and that the transfers represent a major issue that needs to be addressed. Holland strongly criticized the lack of proper oversight in NRI during a heated exchange with Shaw.

Panel members also discussed emails from Quinn administration officials that directly connected NRI with the Governor’s own political campaign.

“This is what happens when tens of millions of dollars are funneled into a new program just weeks before an election,” said Senator Barickman. “Why were officials so concerned with rushing this program into existence?”

The panel also questioned Billy Ocasio, a former senior advisor to Governor Quinn, about his role in the launch of NRI. Ocasio was unable to offer many specifics to the lawmakers, including to whom IVPA director Shaw ultimately answered to.

Warren Ribley, former director of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, testified on an NRI micro-loan program he oversaw which used federal funds that were supposed to be used for hurricane relief.

Former Central Management Services (CMS) Director Malcolm Weems was the last witness to appear on Wednesday, and discussed his role in the formation of NRI, including the transfer of prior-year budget money into non-appropriated funds, which circumvented the standard appropriation process. Panel members questioned Weems about emails stating he would perform “the dirty work” of keeping members of the press out of meetings. Weems denied the characterization from several members that the program was “grossly mismanaged.”

Not one of the witnesses was able to produce documentation of the criteria used to select communities. Panel members noted that several of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago were not included in NRI.

“It is extremely frustrating to me that none of the witnesses today could tell us how the individual communities were selected,” said Senator Barickman. “No one has been able to provide the actual data that was used in the selection process. This is very troubling for taxpayers who spent tens of millions of dollars on this program.”

The LAC meetings are part of the panel’s statutory authority to review audits of state agencies. In February, Illinois Auditor General Bill Holland released a scathing audit on the first two years of NRI. It found that the program was hastily implemented just before the 2010 gubernatorial election, that Chicago aldermen influenced what agencies received the nearly $55 million, and that the entire program lacked proper oversight.

The audit commission is scheduled to resume their work tomorrow, October 9th, at 9:00am. LAC members will take up testimony from former Quinn Chief of Staff Jack Lavin, former Quinn Deputy Chief of Staff Toni Irving, and Quinn’s former Chief Operating Officer Andrew Ross.

In addition to the LAC review of NRI, at least three grand jury subpoenas have been filed on the program, two from US Attorney’s offices in Chicago and Springfield, as well as from the Cook County State’s Attorney.

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