Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Anti-violence program promoted by Quinn mismanaged funds, auditor general's office finds

By Jamey Dunn

Republicans are calling for an investigation of Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration after an audit released today found mismanagement in an anti-violence program backed by the governor.

In the summer of 2010, Quinn announced $50 million in funding for the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, a violence prevention program. The initiative received nearly $55 million from October 2010 to October 2012. The bulk, nearly $45 million, came from Quinn’s discretionary funds and was not directly approved by the General Assembly. Lawmakers approved about $10 million for the initiative as part of the Fiscal Year 2012 budget.

The Neighborhood Recovery Initiative has been the target of scrutiny for a few years now. A 2012 report from CNN called into question some of the program’s spending, including paying youth to hand out fliers, attend yoga classes and march in a parade with Quinn. Later that year, lawmakers approved a resolution calling for an audit of the program.

That review, conducted by the office of Illinois Auditor General William Holland, was released today. The report describes the program as “hastily implemented” and says that the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority (IVPA), which oversaw the program, failed to properly document how money was spent. The funding for the program increased from $20 million to $50 million in less than two months.

Republicans are asking that the executive inspector general’s office to launch an investigation into the program. “This is the kind of information that indictments are made out of,” said Dixon Republican Sen. Tim Bivins. “Obviously there’s got to be an investigation. Everyone’s innocent until proven guilty.” He added, “I think there’s more than enough probable cause ... for an investigation to occur.”

The audit found that the IVPA did not use a competitive bidding process to select the providers that administered the services under the program, instead relying on recommendations from Chicago aldermen. The agency also did not have documentation on how it selected the communities that would receive funding. “The communities selected for NRI were not all the most violent in terms of crime in the Chicago area. Our comparison of NRI communities to the violent crime totals published by the Chicago police found seven Chicago neighborhoods that were among the 20 most violent neighborhoods that did not receive NRI funding. In Year 3 of NRI, another Chicago community, Hermosa, was added to the NRI program. This community ranked 48th in violent crime from 2005 [to] 2010,” the audit said.

The audit looked at 23 providers that participated in the program. Auditors found that 40 percent of the contracts with community providers in the program were approved after the contract work timeline was already completed. Providers were allowed to work on the program before they entered into a contract with the state, and 33 contracts either had no end date or were never approved. Only 30 percent of audited providers kept time sheets for staff paid with funding from the initiative. Holland found documentation indicating that some workers were paid for more time than they worked. More than 60 percent of providers' quarterly reports were late. Some agencies revised quarterly reports more than a year after they were due. Of the 23 providers, two closed, and the IVPA did not recoup unspent program founds. The audit found documentation indicating that $2 million in unspent funds from the initiative were never recovered.

Republicans point to the timing of the spending and accuse Quinn of using the program as a slush fund to try to build community support before the 2010 general election. Quinn narrowly defeated Republican Sen. Bill Brady in 2010 to hang onto his office. Brady is running for governor again “This is a very troubling report about a program launched by Governor Quinn just weeks before the 2010 election with little planning from what certainly appears to be a taxpayer-paid political slush fund,” Brady said in a prepared statement.

Quinn’s office brushed off the accusations. “These issues were resolved more than a year ago,” said a statement from Quinn’s office. “When the governor’s office became aware of the issues with IVPA in 2012, the administration acted quickly and, working with Attorney General [Lisa Madigan’s] Office and the General Assembly, passed legislation to have [the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority] take over the authority. The ICJIA has taken major steps to ensure responsible management of this critical violence prevention program and this issue has since been resolved. We are committed to providing effective work and educational opportunities for our youth to help prevent violence in communities across Illinois.”

The revamped version of the program, now called the Community Violence Prevention Program, is currently operating on an annual budget of about $17 million. The program serves 24 communities and plans to branch out to 33 next year. According to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, last year it administered job training to about 1,800 youth and placed young people in jobs, such as office and retail positions. The state pays the participants’ salaries in these summer jobs. Those in the program also participate in community service and receive mentoring. The program almost provided reentry services to nearly 450 young people who were returning to society after doing time in the state’s corrections system. “We’re excited about our program, and we’re going to continue to provide the effective work program that we’ve designed and continue to offer these opportunities for youth to help prevent violence in communities across Illinois,” said Cristin Evans, spokeswoman for the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

Republicans say a reworking of the initiative is not enough. They say they want answers about the years in which money was misspent. “Every once in a while, the truth comes out of this town, and I would hope that people have the courage to look at it and see what it shows,” said Palatine Republican Sen. Matt Murphy.

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