Legislative Audit Commission wraps up testimony on Quinn’s failed NRI program

Springfield – After two long days of testimony from seven former members of Governor Pat Quinn’s administration, members of the Legislative Audit Commission (LAC) still don’t have many answers to how Quinn’s failed Neighborhood Recovery Initiative quickly ballooned from $20 million to almost $55 million seemingly overnight, nor how neighborhoods and providers were actually chosen to participate.

“We all understand the importance of violence prevention, and we all know there are many good providers and programs in this state,” said LAC Co-chair State Senator Jason Barickman (R-Bloomington). “As a result of the failed NRI program, the integrity of those good actors has unfortunately been questioned as well.”

Senator Barickman said he was also troubled by testimony that underlined an inherent conflict between the Quinn administration’s rush to put the program in place with the stated objectives of the initiative.

“Witnesses consistently cited the need for an emergency measure to stem violence. Yet Barbara Shaw testified that NRI was based on preventative measures, that wouldn’t show results for years,” said Senator Barickman. “The goals of the program – to offer employment training and skills to at-risk youth so they have a greater chance to escape the poverty and violence of their neighborhoods – required a sustained effort over time. That’s clearly in conflict with the rush-job nature in which the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative was implemented. Unfortunately, at the end of this hearing we are left with more questions than answers.”

A total of seven individuals appeared before the bipartisan panel of lawmakers, including former Illinois Violence Prevention Authority (IVPA) Executive Director Barbara Shaw, former Quinn senior advisor Billy Ocasio, former Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Director Warren Ribley, former Central Management Services (CMS) Director Malcolm Weems, former Quinn Chief of Staff Jack Lavin, former Quinn Deputy Chief of Staff Toni Irving, and Quinn’s former Chief Operating Officer Andrew Ross.

None of the individuals could provide any documentation showing how neighborhoods were actually chosen for the program.

“Nearly every single witness told us communities were picked based on crime statistics, yet several of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Chicago were excluded,” said Senator Barickman. “One of the biggest things we’ve learned here is the incredible frustration felt by some community leaders who live in high-crime neighborhoods that were left out of the program. They are left wondering about the motives behind those decisions, and frustrated that their government isn’t trying to help them.”

Former Quinn Chief of Staff Jack Lavin was thoroughly questioned on Thursday over communications that seemed to clearly connect the effort to launch NRI to Pat Quinn’s political campaign. Lavin was quoted in an email talking about promoting the program as part of Quinn’s campaign before NRI had actually been announced or implemented.

“The timing of this naturally creates serious questions about the motivations that caused this program to be rushed out just before an election,” said Senator Barickman. “It seems clear that members of Quinn’s administration were simultaneously planning the program while strategizing how to use it for political gain.”

The LAC meetings were 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.

Panel members questioned why the program was rushed into existence so quickly, as well as why providers were chosen in a non-competitive, non-transparent fashion. Several witnesses testified that they felt that violence in Chicago created an emergency situation in which traditional and widely accepted “best-practices” may not have been feasible. Yet no one testifying could offer a rationale for why the entire agency overseeing NRI, the IVPA, was abruptly shut down in 2012 despite continued violence throughout Chicago.

“Perhaps the most frustrating part of this process is that no one seems willing to take responsibility for this program,” said Senator Barickman. “What we have learned about this wasteful program, we will use to guide us in the legislature to ensure that state government can be more responsible stewards of taxpayer funds.”

The commission voted to keep the NRI audit open while more evidence and documentation is collected. The panel has also tasked Auditor General Holland with additional work in regards to an NRI microloan program that was discussed during testimony. An additional resolution is pending to audit the second two years of the NRI program.

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

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