Lavin email asserts political motive to Quinn’s troubled Neighborhood Recovery Initiative

Barbara Shaw, the former head of the Gov. Pat Quinn’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, testified Wednesday that politics did not play a role in the program’s troubled rollout.

By Elizabeth Atkinson

Barbara Shaw, the embattled former director of Gov. Pat Quinn’s troubled Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, testified Wednesday that she was not pressured to roll out the anti-violence program because of Quinn’s upcoming reelection battle. Shaw also said that the election did not factor into which entities received the $55 million in funding. But a 2010 email from then-Quinn chief of staff Jack Lavin introduced at the hearing raised questions about her assertions. In an email to Ben Nuckels, a media strategist in Milwaukee, Lavin wrote “If we are trying to get the base out–and that’s key to our victory–we better prioritize correctly. The gov’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative will also help on the jobs and anti-violence message.”

It was an early revelation in two days of scheduled hearings into where the money in the anti-violence program ended up. Quinn’s office quickly responded to the appearance of a political motive.

Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said the emails from Jack Lavin were “clearly not government conversations.” She went on to say that “Chicago was in a state of emergency in the spring and summer of 2010. The issue of gun violence was a critical concern for many constituencies, particularly in the African-American community.” As to whether or not the Neighborhood Recovery program was pushed to begin ahead of the election, Anderson said, “Obviously the campaign would want to promote what we are doing to fight violence in the community during an election, just like any other policy issue in a campaign.”

That explanation is unlikely to satisfy some Illinois legislators. “Two federal criminal investigations have further stoked the public’s questions into what went wrong, how taxpayer money was wasted, and how the integrity of legitimate programs is now being questioned and threatened,” said Illinois State Sen. Jason Barickman (R-Streator) in a statement opening the hearing.

Back in 2010, Quinn asked the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority to develop a program that would specialize in preventative measures against violence across the state. The authority was given $54.5 million from a mixture of governor’s discretionary fund and general revenue.

The money was supposed to go to specific neighborhood organizations that had been recommended by Chicago aldermen, even though the program was intended for the entirety of Illinois. The recommended organizations were asked to apply for a non-competitive grant. But an audit was unable to find any evidence that grant recipients were selected on the basis of applications. Of the five agencies that were audited, all had documentation problems.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Illinois State Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) asked about the Violence Prevention Authority’s ability to handle such a large project. Shaw said that she didn’t have any initial concerns about the amount of dollars involved because she had handled a $25 million program to improve school safety in 2002.

An audit found that initial budgets and quarterly reports were flawed, and because of a lack of data, the amount of money spent on neighborhood recovery is unknown.