Illinois Senate and House Republican Leaders on Aug. 12 – in concert with members of the Legislative Audit Commission – called on Governor Quinn and his Administration to lift the curtain of secrecy and come clean on new spending for a rebranded version of his failed Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
“We’ve seen a disturbing pattern of a lack of transparency from Governor Quinn and his Administration,” Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno said. “Every week we see new reports about the mismanagement of the NRI program. Every week, Governor Quinn spins that he’s fixed the problems. It’s the same claim he made about the patronage scheme at the Department of Transportation and we all know now that just wasn’t true.
“Now, just months before an election, Governor Quinn has squirreled away $20 million in taxpayer dollars in a way that looks and smells like NRI all over again,” Radogno said. “And just like NRI, they have begun passing it out with record speed. In the first month of this fiscal year, Governor Quinn dished out nearly 60 percent of the special funding earmarked for the Department of Labor. It’s time for some honest answers.”
At issue is a $20 million lump sum Quinn hid in the current state budget, with only a vague description that the money would be used by the agency for purposes almost identical to those that described the original NRI program. In July – just weeks after the budget was approved -- $5 million was transferred to the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and $6.5 million to the Department of Human Services. Grant recipients have yet to be identified.
“Last year, the Department of Labor had a budget of $7 million. This year, Governor Quinn and his Democrat majorities gave them $27 million to spend,” Leader Durkin said. “That’s a 300 percent increase for an agency that’s never issued a grant. It has no experience in this area. It has no experience in at-risk communities. Now we’re seeing the money being diverted to other agencies. Are the Illinois Democrats again using taxpayer money for NRI, months before an election? If not, what is it being used for? The taxpayers’ of Illinois deserve an answer.”
The lawmakers say Governor Quinn should be transparent and provide public details – including memos and emails that led up to the Department of Labor program’s creation and standards in place to protect taxpayers’ money. The original earmark was $15 million in the FY15 budget, but quickly mushroomed to $20 million, without explanation.
“It’s the same pattern we’ve seen with NRI and we still don’t have answers,” Rep. Ron Sandack said. “Without public scrutiny, we know how this is going to turn out. Quinn will debut ‘NRI the Sequel’ and as everyone knows sequels are always worse than the originals.”
Sen. Jason Barickman, co-chair of the Audit Commission said, the NRI program continues today, despite Governor Quinn’s claims to the contrary.
“As the Legislative Audit Commission pores over records and emails regarding the failed NRI program, it is becoming clear Governor Quinn has not provided all the requested materials. But even more important, he has not fixed the problems he created,” Barickman said.
“Despite Governor Quinn’s claims, NRI spending continued unchecked at the Criminal Justice Information Authority. At one point, CJIA even broke its own grant rules to continue pushing money out the door at Governor Quinn’s request,” Barickman said. “Now we‘ve seen evidence in the public record and media reports of the involvement of the state’s Department of Commerce and Community Affairs.
“It appears funding recipients were hand-picked for a special high-dollar loan program before Quinn even announced the program – using federal funds that were supposed to go for disaster relief. With a new $20 million to the Department of Labor in this budget, the mismanagement continues,” Barickman said.
In its statutory duties to review the audit, the Legislative Audit Commission is reviewing records. Public testimony from seven subpoenaed top Quinn aides involved in the program has been delayed until Oct. 8 at the request of the United States Attorney, who is investigating the program and its spending.
“Our hands might be temporarily tied on talking with Governor Quinn’s top aides,” Barickman said. “But Governor Quinn’s aren’t. He can come forward and publicly explain NRI, his claims that he fixed the problems and his plans to continue pumping money out.”
Durkin said answers have been elusive. “We have asked questions all along about NRI and its various versions. Most recently during the budget-making process. Yet, this Administration provided no clear answers.”
Leader Radogno said, “Every dollar spent on a catastrophic failure jeopardizes funding for legitimate organizations and legitimate needs – from Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods to Rock Island, Springfield and Carbondale. Governor Quinn has bilked the taxpayers – and the very people the NRI program was supposed to serve.”
The lawmakers called on Governor Quinn to specify plans for the Department of Labor funding, immediately release all documents relating to the NRI program and provide evidence to support his claims that the problems with the $100 million-plus program have been fixed.
“The taxpayers of Illinois deserve to have all the information,” Rep. Sandack said. “Without it, we can only assume it’s just another scam.”
NRI is currently under what could be several federal investigations, following a scathing Auditor General audit on the first $55 million spent on the program.