Democratic Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, locked into a competitive re-election bid, is fighting to maintain an image as a reformer who's cleaned up state government amid questions about a now-defunct anti-violence program he started in the run-up to his 2010 election.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan commission of lawmakers agreed to grant federal prosecutors' request to wait to call a number of former Quinn administration officials they subpoenaed to testify about the program, which a state audit recently concluded had "pervasive" problems, including misuse of funds. But legislators were still debating whether to set a date for that testimony in October — just weeks before the Nov. 4 election.
Federal prosecutors, who say they've launched a criminal investigation into how the funds were spent, had asked lawmakers to hold off, and six witnesses told the commission through their attorneys Wednesday morning that they wouldn't appear, in deference to prosecutors' request. A seventh appeared but said he's "not ready" to testify.
Republicans, who see the gubernatorial election this year as a chance to win control of a Democratic-leaning state, have alleged Quinn used money from the $55 million Neighborhood Recovery Initiative as a political slush fund to secure votes in predominantly minority neighborhoods of heavily Democratic Chicago in a tight race. Quinn has denied that claim and says he has "zero tolerance" for fraud or abuse. He's also defended the intent of the program, which provided mentorship, job training, counseling and help former inmates in Chicago's violence-plagued neighborhoods.
Regardless of whether there was any wrongdoing, the allegations alone could be damaging for Quinn, who often touts the steps he's taken to turn Illinois around after the last two governors went to prison for corruption. His GOP rival, Bruce Rauner, meanwhile, has worked to paint Quinn as just another insider.
"The one thing (Quinn) does have and always has had is a reputation for integrity," said Chris Mooney, a political studies professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "If this looks like he's just another Chicago politician like he's been railing against for years ... that's not good."
Political analyst Thom Serafin, however, said it's still too early to tell what damage — if any — there could be.
"You don't know what's there yet," he said.
The Legislative Audit Commission oversees state audits and must approve one that concluded that the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative was hastily put together, poorly managed and that some funds never went to violence prevention efforts. Quinn has said he shut down the program in 2012 when concerns about possible misspending arose.
Quinn's office also says it has instructed all state agencies to support any law enforcement inquiries. Senate Republican spokeswoman Patty Schuh says Quinn's office had provided members of the Legislative Audit Commission about 2,000 emails linked to the program.
Quinn, who was traveling to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, signed a new law that strengthen rules for how the state awards and oversees grants.
"What happened with the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative program was unacceptable and should never happen at any state agency," he said in a statement. "When I learned of these issues, I took responsibility by defunding the program and shutting it down, and today I am instituting the strongest reforms in the nation."
Prosecutors want the commission to hold off on calling the seven former Quinn administration employees involved in the program for 90 days, though they've given lawmakers the green light to collect documents from witnesses. All seven witnesses indicated Wednesday that they would turn over any relevant communications by Thursday. Former senior adviser Billy Ocasio said he didn't have any such documents.
The commission is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, though one Democrat is absent. It would take a majority vote to reverse an earlier decision to call the witnesses.
Democrats — who are looking to curb the critical headlines — argue that making the witnesses testify could jeopardize the criminal investigation. Republicans, eager to hammer on Quinn administration missteps in an election year, have said they want to schedule a firm October date for future testimony so they can learn what went wrong and prevent a repeat.
Quinn ascended to the governor's office in 2009 when lawmakers ousted Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich after Blagojevich was arrested on federal corruption charges. Quinn won his first full term in 2010, beating Republican state Sen. Bill Brady by a slim margin.
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