Subsidized jobs given in Illinois questioned

SPRINGFIELD – In 2006, Gov. Rod Blagojevich said he would give poor teens eight-week summer jobs on community service and highway beautification projects. Thousands of youths, he said, got the state-subsidized posts over the next three years.

But ever since, state officials have refused to say who those young people were, so there’s no way to verify the government claims. State officials can’t account for all of the participants. And they say they have no documents for the program before 2008.

Now federal prosecutors also are asking questions about Blagojevich’s “Summer Youth Works” initiative. The Associated Press has obtained a copy of a federal subpoena seeking records from the state Department of Human Services related to the initiative.

In a state where clout, influence and corruption have long played a role in public affairs, the AP has been attempting to uncover information confirming that the tax dollars were spent as promised – but state officials have declined, citing the privacy of those on public assistance and the lack of records.

The AP is highlighting its efforts to obtain documents about the program as part of “Sunshine Week,” which began Sunday and annually marks efforts by government watchdogs to open government affairs to “sunshine” and freedom of information.

DHS officials denied the AP’s Freedom of Information Act request for the names of “Summer Youth Works” participants in 2006 and again in January. The news organization has asked the state attorney general’s public access counselor to review the matter.

The subpoena about the jobs program, sent in October, asked for records “that in any way relate” to Summer Youth Works. Sharon Paul, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney for the central district of Illinois, declined to comment on it.

DHS spokesman Tom Green said in December that the agency had received an extension for responding by the Dec. 7 federal subpoena deadline Last week, Green said the matter was confidential and he could not comment.

The department also would not say how much the program cost or the source of funding, telling the AP to file another Freedom of Information Act request for the information.

Illinois has a history of officeholders handing out political plums to friends and political allies.

At least a third of the state government internships Blagojevich officials handed out were reserved for people with connections to $400,000 in campaign contributions to him. The University of Illinois kept a list of at least 800 applicants with clout. Federal prosecutors subpoenaed records last fall related to state grants to organizations with ties to a state senator who has since resigned from the Legislature.

Blagojevich, a Democrat who was impeached and removed from office in 2009, has since been convicted of lying to the FBI about his fund-raising tactics.

As governor, Blagojevich started Summer Youth Works in 2006. It ended in 2008.

Officials from two nonprofit agencies that participated praised the operation and said they screened applicants for income eligibility. Green said eligible workers had to be age 18-21 and members of families whose income was less than twice the poverty level of $2,428 a month for a family of two. In 2008, the age range was expanded to 13-22.

Rep. Patricia “Patti” Bellock of Hinsdale, a Republican spokeswoman for the House Human Services Committee, said it appears that privacy laws for welfare recipients outweigh public-access rights to information about who got those jobs, but wants to explore the issue further.

“We’d need a clarification on the law,” Bellock said. “I really believe in transparency, especially when people have jobs being paid for by tax dollars if there has been some form of alleged abuse in the system. How else are you going to find out?”

In 2006, the AP requested the names, and later ZIP codes, of the first-year employees from DHS, which refused to disclose the names. The agency said it was prohibited from doing so by state and federal laws that preclude the publication of information about families receiving public assistance.

After the AP obtained the subpoena, it once again requested the names and ZIP codes of each employee hired through the program by DHS and the Department of Transportation, which was listed as another participating agency in a 2008 Blagojevich statement.

In January the DHS, this time under Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration, used the same exceptions to deny the disclosure of names. It did release the ZIP codes of each worker, but just for 2008.

Other records are incomplete.

IDOT says it has no information on any summer work programs. DHS released to the AP in 2006 the names of several dozen vendors it said employed nearly 1,000 students, but now says it has no records prior to 2008.

And instead of the 10,000 workers Blagojevich boasted that the program employed in 2008, DHS supplied just under 5,800 ZIP codes of employees assigned to about 100 nonprofit organizations.

An Associated Press analysis of those ZIP codes found that 686 of the summer workers came from areas where the median household income was above the statewide median of $46,590, according to 2000 Census figures. More than 800 were above the federal median income of $41,994, although not more than twice the poverty rate for a family of two.

That doesn’t mean those employees hired weren’t from disadvantaged homes, but simply that they lived in ZIP codes with a higher income than typical.

Jessie Bates, a grant writer for the Patriots Gateway Community Center in Rockford, said the agency got a $44,369 grant the first year and put about 40 young people to work at museums around the city. She couldn’t immediately say how much the agency received in the later years.

“It was an excellent program,” Bates said. “It helped a lot of kids.”

The Rev. Marrice Coverson, chief executive of the Institute for Positive Living in Chicago, recalls being reimbursed afterward for expenses associated with the jobs program. The agency put more than 20 people to work, including young adults in downtown Chicago offices where they learned promptness, the importance of professional attire and other skills.

Coverson is quoted in Blagojevich’s 2008 news release commending the program, but her agency is not listed among those participating that year in the information released by DHS.

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