When Stevenson, 60, contacted the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County, she was told workers could replace her furnace, vent her roof, insulate her attic and make other repairs to her South Holland home, all at no cost to Stevenson.
The money spent on Stevenson's home is a tiny fraction of the $90.5 million federal and state officials are pouring into the nonprofit CEDA to weatherize homes for the poor, but hundreds of jobs have been plagued by workmanship problems, according to state and federal records.
As CEDA's part in the federal stimulus program heads into its final months, contractors continue to fail 1 in 7 inspections, and a federal plan to fix mistakes revealed in a blistering audit last year still hasn't been completed, federal officials said.
Even with limited oversight of the work, government inspectors have found gas leaks, poorly insulated walls, missing shut-off valves and other shoddy and sometimes dangerous work, records show. Several contractors installed the wrong equipment or billed for materials that were never used, inspectors found.
And by the state doling out money to a nonprofit, which is not subject to open-records laws, officials have kept from the public how millions of taxpayer dollars are spent. CEDA refused to provide information about its contractors, some of which have lengthy records of complaints, the Tribune found.
In early 2009, President Barack Obama called for infusing $5 billion into the federal government's decades-old weatherization program to put people to work and lower energy costs. Illinois split a three-year, $242 million grant among 35 agencies, CEDA being the largest.
The stimulus program pumped so much money into weatherization so quickly that CEDA wasn't equipped to handle the explosive workload, officials told the Tribune. And the pressure was on for the program to succeed.
"This is the state where the president is from, and Illinois does not want to embarrass the president," said Dalitso Sulamoyo, CEO of the Illinois Association of Community Action Agencies, of which CEDA is a member.
John Hamilton, CEDA's weatherization director, insisted that not one dollar has been misspent and that contractors must fix mistakes or they will not be paid. Many contractors have been put on probation or have not been invited back, he said, though he would not provide examples.
"We take the quality part of it very seriously," Hamilton said.
Flood of work, money
Critics say Illinois is one of a string of states that wasted taxpayer money through weatherization programs.
"Weatherization is so vulnerable to fraud at every level," said Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonpartisan group in Washington, D.C. "There's a lot of opportunity for sweetheart deals, self-dealing, all kinds of inappropriate uses of the money."
CEDA hired nearly 60 contractors to weatherize an expected 15,000 homes, about half of the state's planned total. The stimulus program more than tripled CEDA's jobs, and the agency had a pressing deadline. Illinois officials wanted work done nearly a year before the March 2012 federal deadline to use stimulus money.
"We wanted to provide as much benefit to low-income residents as soon as possible," said Warren Ribley, director of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which oversees CEDA's weatherization program.
CEDA trained dozens of new staff and contractors. With so many new workers, officials said they expected mistakes.
But some complaints involved experienced contractors. Parliament Builders of Chicago's Garfield Ridge community has done weatherization for nearly 25 years, yet it was criticized repeatedly in state monitoring reports.