Deadlocked in a tough campaign in September 2010, Gov. Pat Quinn launched a $55 million anti-violence grant program, doling out money to groups on the South Side and south suburbs, home to core Democratic voters.
Weeks later, Quinn piled up a 500,000-vote advantage over his Republican challenger in Cook County — one of only four Illinois counties the governor carried en route to a slim 31,384-vote victory.
Now the very program critics say helped Quinn win election four years ago is threatening to undermine his re-election in 2014.
On Friday, Cook County and federal prosecutors looking into Quinn's troubled Neighborhood Recovery Initiative asked for records, including payments, time sheets and personnel files involving the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority — the now-defunct agency that had run the program.
The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, the agency that inherited the program and the violence prevention authority, received a Cook County grand jury subpoena, while federal prosecutors in Springfield made an inquiry for similar records.
"We are working with these agencies to provide all records and requested information," said agency spokeswoman Cristin Evans.
Earlier in the week, the state comptroller disclosed it had complied with a request from federal authorities to turn over copies of contracts and canceled checks from the anti-violence initiative. That came after the revelation that the Cook County state's attorney's office had subpoenaed Quinn's economic development agency and the Illinois auditor general, who had concluded the program was "hastily implemented" and mismanaged.
It was the latest problem for Quinn, who two weeks ago found his administration the subject of a federal lawsuit alleging illegal political hiring at the Illinois Department of Transportation. In addition, an attorney representing Quinn confirmed last week that the state's executive inspector general also is looking into the allegations of political hiring at IDOT.
Taken together, the events have allowed Republican challenger Bruce Rauner to try to chip away at what has been one of the main pillars of Quinn's public career: his honesty and integrity.
Quinn becomes the fourth consecutive governor to face federal scrutiny, following his former running mate Rod Blagojevich, imprisoned for corruption; Republican George Ryan, convicted in the licenses-for-bribes scandal; and Republican Jim Edgar, who twice had to testify at trials involving a contracting scandal in his administration. A fifth, Jim Thompson, lost a landmark federal patronage hiring lawsuit.
"It fits into a framework of a story that is already pervasive, and that is the constant harping on corruption in Illinois government and long-term problems of abuse of power in high places," said John Jackson, visiting professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
"So it doesn't take much to sort of fit that narrative, and it gives Rauner something more to talk about. And he's already of course got a megaphone that is fueled by millions of millions of dollars, so he will step up that message by using these issues that now have some credence," he said.
The revelations have prompted Quinn to play defense, including doing a series of interviews on Friday with Chicago TV stations. It is an uncharacteristic role for Quinn, a veteran campaigner, who has never been shy to go on the offensive against a political opponent to win an election.
"While there is no doubt that Gov. Quinn inherited an ethical crisis from two corrupt governors in a row, everyone knows he has been cleaning up state government since the day he arrived and when a problem comes to light he works to immediately get to the bottom of the issue, root out any problems whenever they should arise, and create new reforms and safeguards," a statement from Quinn's campaign said.
Quinn has maintained that once he became aware of the problems with the program in 2012, he worked to have the violence prevention authority taken over by the criminal justice information authority —an agency operating under the governor's office.
"The important thing is to identify the problem, hold departments accountable and make sure we act swiftly to squarely address the problem and resolve it," Quinn said a day before the federal inquiry surfaced.
"I think the people of Illinois know where I stand. I always believe in doing the right thing. And I think the right thing is always to hold agencies accountable," said Quinn, who ran for a series of offices as an outsider for decades before succeeding Blagojevich in 2009.
Quinn's administration and campaign have sought to change the subject in a variety of ways, from attacking Rauner's views on education and health care to announcing the governor's support for legislation that would ban pet shops from selling animals from "puppy mill" breeders.
But Quinn's problems provide an easy attack line for Rauner, who won the March primary election as he assailed what he called a vast culture of corruption in Springfield even before the most recent revelations.
"This is a sad event that the people of Illinois have seen too many times. The people deserve better than to have yet another governor under federal investigation," Rauner said in a statement last week.
The Cook County subpoenas from prosecutors working for State's Attorney Anita Alvarez asked for records related to the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative and specifically mentioned the Chicago Area Project, which was given oversight of some of the funds for programs in neighborhoods including West Garfield Park, according to the state audit. Benton Cook, husband of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, was paid more than $166,000 in program funds during 2011 and 2012, state records show.
The organization recommended anti-violence program participants for evaluation and approval, but there was no documentation to show how the Chicago Area Project developed such listings, according to the audit.
The Alvarez probe and the inquiry from federal authorities in Springfield date back to at least March 19, the day after the primary election.
In February, Auditor General William Holland released a stinging audit of the anti-violence program, saying it failed to target some of Chicago's highest-crime neighborhoods and relied on recommendations from city aldermen and community organizers to decide what organizations should get funding. Holland also faulted a failure to carefully track how money was spent and said some of the community organizations involved did not live up to grant requirements.
Both Cook County and federal authorities have declined to discuss why they're looking into the anti-violence program. But if problems are found, Quinn could be held accountable politically because he started the program and tasked the now-defunct Illinois Violence Prevention Authority to run it.
State grants, like those delivered through the anti-violence initiative, have long proved an ample feeding ground for federal investigators who routinely have found taxpayer dollars being misspent, doled out to those with political connections or used to solicit kickbacks.
During the past few years, a Springfield-based federal and state task force investigating state grant and contract fraud has charged more than a dozen people.
Last month, Quinshaunta Golden, a onetime top aide to former state public health chief Dr. Eric Whitaker, pleaded guilty in a $400,000 state grant kickback scam. Prosecutors have agreed to request that Golden, niece of Democratic U.S. Rep. Danny Davis of Chicago, be sentenced to no more than 10 years in prison. Whitaker, a close friend of President Barack Obama's, has said he is fully cooperating with the government and not involved "in any way" with the alleged crimes in the case.
Before that, the daughter of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's controversial former minister, was convicted of laundering thousands of dollars from a $1.25 million state grant for a Chicago-based job training program. Jeri Wright has said she will appeal. Her attorney argued Wright was a victim of a web spun by longtime friend Regina Evans, the former Country Club Hills police chief who was sentenced to five years on Thursday after pleading guilty to corruption in the case. Evans had secured a state job training grant but allegedly diverted the money.
Two Chicago women were sentenced to prison last October after pleading guilty to diverting grant money intended to encourage more minorities in Chicago to become nurses. One of them, Margaret Davis, said then-state Sen. Rickey Hendon helped secure the grant money. The flamboyant West Side politician abruptly resigned in February 2011, months after revelations that a federal grand jury issued subpoenas for records on dozens of state grants, some of which he sponsored. Hendon has not been charged.
The task force's efforts claimed the political career of former state Rep. Connie Howard, who pleaded guilty last year to diverting as much as $28,000 from a scholarship fund she created to benefit needy students.
Democratic state Rep. Derrick Smith, already expelled once from the Illinois House, is scheduled to face trial this month in Chicago after federal investigators alleged he pocketed $7,000 from a day care operator who wanted him to write an official letter supporting a bid for a $50,000 state grant in 2012. The operator was working undercover for the FBI. Smith, who lost his March primary election, has denied any wrongdoing.
Tribune reporter Ray Long contributed from Springfield.