"There was no money allocated at all before the election of 2010," Gov. Pat Quinn told Chicago TV reporter Charles Thomas about allegations that the governor had spent millions in state anti-violence grants to boost his flagging election campaign.
Quinn used this to defend himself against growing criticism about a devastating state audit of the anti-violence grants. But what the governor said in his own defense was not true.
According to Illinois Auditor General Bill Holland, Quinn's administration signed contracts with 23 local groups on Oct. 15, about three weeks before 2010’s election day. Each of the groups, hand-picked by Chicago aldermen, were promised about $300,000 for a total of around $7 million.
"That is allocating money," Auditor General Holland emphatically said last week about the awarding of those state contracts.
A Quinn spokesman countered that the governor actually meant to say that no money was distributed to the groups before election day. But the groups' leaders, many with political ties, had signed state contracts in their hands. They knew that big-time state money was on the way soon.
As you probably already know, Holland's audit uncovered massive problems with the grants, finding "pervasive deficiencies" in the "planning, implementation and management" of the grants doled out via the Governor's Neighborhood Recovery Initiative. The program was "hastily implemented," expenses were not adequately monitored, and a third of Chicago's "most violent Chicago communities" weren't included in the program.
The governor met with a group of ministers in the Roseland community in August of 2010. Black ministers long have held a strong position of power in Chicago's African-American political culture, so Quinn was undoubtedly eager to placate them ahead of election day.
Five days after the meeting, the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority was informed by the governor's office that Quinn wanted to establish a $20 million crime reduction program. Less than two months after the initial meeting, the governor upped the grant program to $50 million for Chicago communities alone. Chicago aldermen were asked to submit lists of groups that would receive the money and that list alone was used to solicit Requests for Proposals from the groups. Contracts were signed Oct. 15.
The audit's language is without a doubt the harshest since Rod Blagojevich was governor.
Some Republicans asked the Auditor General last week to forward his findings to the U.S. Attorney.
One of the items pointed to by the Republicans is a passage from the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority's Sept. 30, 2010, board minutes, when an official from the governor's office told the board that "the Governor's Office is committed to allocating some of the funds for this Initiative immediately and will allocate the rest after the election."
That quote, the Republicans say, is proof the election was an issue with the program. He was, some of them say, trying to “buy” the 2010 election. But that's not really my read.
Back when Jim Edgar was Secretary of State, he oversaw a literacy grant program. Not coincidentally, lots of African-American churches with schools received grants from Edgar. The plan was simple and well thought out: Use state money to carefully buy influence with an important constituency.
But the creation of Quinn's anti-violence initiative was completely reactive. Quinn was under enormous pressure from leaders of exploding neighborhoods to act fast.
The idea here appeared to be to throw something – anything – together as quickly as he could to get the angry ministers and neighborhood leaders off his back. Allowing aldermen to pick the local agencies further ensured the squeakiest wheels would be greased.
What Quinn purchased wasn't votes, it was peace with a powerful and important constituency. It got him out of the headlines. He was no longer part of the problem.
There are those who say politics and governing must be completely separated, but that just can't happen in a democratic republic.
How many of the legislators carelessly talking to the press about impeachment in this case have introduced bills or voted for or against legislation to the benefit of a powerful local constituency? All of them.
There's no doubt, however, this grant program went far beyond normally accepted practices, to the point of throwing them out. But the really serious legal problems will likely be found in the middle and the bottom – perhaps some of the aldermen who recommended the agencies and any of the connected folks who got the grants.
• Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.