How Quinn's Anti-Violence Program Spiraled Out of Control

The governor's Neighborhood Recovery Initiative lacks strong leadership to keep it in check

Whoever said "all press is good press" does not work in the administration of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.

A new criminal probe and federal inquiry into the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative (NRI) are the latest (and most devastating) developments in a string of bad publicity for the state-funded program that Quinn launched four years ago and has since abolished. They also deliver another big blow to the governor's public image as he seeks re-election this fall.

Earlier this week, it was revealed that Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez had called a criminal investigation of the NRI. Quinn released more than 1,000 documents in response to a subpoena from Alvarez's office requesting the names and identities of people who received grants for projects linked to the program, for months the subject of controversy over alleged financial wrongdoing.

Although Quinn pulled the plug on the NRI last year, state money continues to flow into community anti-violence organizations from a different agency he oversees called the Criminal Justice Information Authority (CJIA).

What began as a well-intentioned effort to curb violent crime in Chicago has spiraled downward into a PR disaster from which Quinn may not fully rebound.

Republicans have blasted the program as a "political slush fund" and a cynical election-strategy maneuver by Quinn to win more South Side votes one month before his narrow victory over Illinois state senator Bill Brady in 2010.

But its mission -- to turn around tough neighborhoods through job training and mentorship -- was nothing less than crucial, and it remains so amid the gun-and-gang-fueled outbreak of violence sweeping the city.

The execution of that mission is another story.

Mid-way into its launch, circa December 2012, NRI garnered negative headlines for paying at-risk teenagers $8.75 an hour to distribute fliers promoting non-violence and march with Quinn in the Bud Billiken Parade, among other jobs. At the time, the program was beginning an audit at the request of state lawmakers who questioned how the $55 million in taxpayer dollars was being spent. Among the complaints: that NRI was ordered to action too quickly, resulting in a disorganized rollout; that its sprawling network was too big to be monitored effectively; and that, to compound matters, Chicago's murder rate had risen by 20 percent.

A separate 2012 audit revealed that one of the groups formerly funded by NRI, The Woodlawn Organization, had spent almost $2,000 of its $1.2 million grant on gift cards for contractors.

Cut to 2014, and it's more of the same: In February, Auditor General William Holland reported that the NRI was "hastily implemented," neglected to focus on the most crime-ridden neighborhoods and used recommendations from Chicago aldermen rather than a more impartial strategy in choosing which community groups to fund.

Holland took the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority (IVPA) to task for failing to keep tabs on NRI-funded groups. (Following 2012's bad press, the group was folded into the Criminal Justice Information Authority, which answers directly to Quinn.)

In response to Holland's report, a Quinn spokesperson said the CJIA had "taken major steps to ensure responsible management of this critical violence prevention program and this issue has since been resolved."

Weeks later, the Sun-Times dropped a bombshell that cast further doubt on whether things have improved, reporting that Benton Cook III -- the husband of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown -- had pocketed 7 percent of the more than $2.1 million earmarked for the Chicago Area Project, for which he served as program coordinator. (Cook told the paper he did not recall how much money he made while working for the West Garfield Park-based organization.)

The paper also reported in March that two South Side gang members paid to hand out anti-violence fliers had been involved in a shooting that left one dead and the other facing a murder charge.

On Thursday, the Illinois Comptroller's Office confirmed it had received NRI-related requests for information from federal authorities in March but did not go into detail.

"If there is an inquiry, we fully support it," said Quinn's spokesperson in a statement. "We have zero tolerance for any mismanagement at any state agency. That's why the Governor abolished this agency nearly two years ago."

Two years too late, it seems.

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