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updated: 3/10/2014 5:51 PM

Clerk's spouse earned $146K from troubled program

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Associated Press

Tens of thousands of dollars earmarked for a Chicago anti-violence program that was launched by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2010 -- and has recently come under scrutiny -- was paid to the husband of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown.

Benton Cook received $146,401 in salary and fringe benefits from state grants for his work with the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative in the city's West Garfield Park neighborhood, according to public records reviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The neighborhood received $2.1 million over two years from the effort, which was championed by the governor after Chicago ministers asked him to declare a "state of emergency" on city violence. He announced it in October 2010, leading critics to argue it was a program to solidify the city's vote just a month before he won election by a razor-thin margin.

Cook told the newspaper that he worked for the program but didn't receive that much money.

"It wasn't nearly $145,000," Cook said. "Check your records."

The newspaper said Cook was coordinator with the Chicago Area Project, which doled out the money in the neighborhood. It reported he'd signed one set of documents detailing the $67,526 in salary and fringe benefits he'd earned in 2011. A similar 2012 report listing $78,875 in salary and fringe benefits didn't have Cook's signature.

A review of the entire $55 million program released in late February by state Auditor General William Holland questioned 40 percent of the expenditures claimed by service providers. The program aimed to reduce violence in two dozen Chicago neighborhoods through jobs for young people, parenting skills, school counseling and help for people getting out of prison.

But the now-defunct Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, which created the project at Quinn's behest, couldn't produce the criteria it used to choose the targeted communities and failed to include seven neighborhoods that Chicago police consider to be the most crime-ridden, the audit found. It also relied on Chicago aldermen -- not an open bidding process -- to find community organizations to run the programs.

The Illinois Violence Prevention Authority was folded into the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority in January 2013, and Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said the problems were resolved more than a year ago.

Still, Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont has called for a federal investigation into the program.

"It's pure cronyism. I think it's what people suspected was going on," she said. "Almost $150,000 to the spouse of a countywide elected official from the governor of the same party, that's outrageous."

A spokeswoman for Brown said the payments to her husband have "nothing to do with the clerk's office."

Quinn's office wasn't involved in Cook's hiring and disputed claims of favoritism.

"Not one community organization received a single dollar until after the election," Anderson wrote in an email. "The State and other public entities have long worked with the organization the Chicago Area Project -- a highly-reputable and widely-respected group -- for decades. The State of Illinois had no role, involvement or awareness of the hiring of this organization's staffer."

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