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.