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updated: 4/30/2014 5:47 PM

Probe of Quinn program stirs governor's race

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  • Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, left, is running for re-election against Republican Bruce Rauner.

      Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, left, is running for re-election against Republican Bruce Rauner.

 
Associated Press

Gov. Pat Quinn says his biggest achievements include cleaning up Illinois government after two scandal-plagued predecessors went to prison, but two back-to-back probes into hiring and management in the Chicago Democrat's administration have given his Republican challenger fodder to paint a contrasting picture. A day after Quinn's administration confirmed that Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez's office subpoenaed records related to Quinn's 2010 troubled anti-violence program, businessman Bruce Rauner appeared in Springfield on Wednesday and tried to link Quinn to imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Illinois' history of corruption.

The new probe comes after a federal lawsuit last week alleging wrongful hiring practices in Quinn's Department of Transportation -- which Illinois' Republican congressmen questioned Wednesday -- and The Associated Press found that the Illinois Medicaid program paid millions for services for people who had already died.

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"Pat Quinn will say one thing and do another," Rauner told reporters before delivering signatures for his term limits ballot initiative. "The evidence is clear, in Medicaid, with the neighborhood recovery initiative and in patronage, in the Department of Transportation. He's clearly part of this culture of corruption and failure."

The issues have shaken the Illinois gubernatorial race, expected to be one of the most competitive and expensive nationwide. Rauner, a venture capitalist from Winnetka, portrays himself as an outsider who'll clean up Springfield.

But Quinn, who in a January speech said that he'd "restored integrity to state government," said Wednesday that he's tackled issues head on and addressed problems, including with his Neighborhood Recovery Initiative Program.

"If anything isn't going in the right direction, 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," he said after calling for more funding for the Monetary Award Program benefiting college students. "That's what I've done my whole life."

Earlier this year, an audit detailed "pervasive deficiencies" in implementing the $55 million anti-violence program, along with sloppy and missing paperwork. The report questioned about 40 percent of the expenditures by service providers. The Chicago Sun-Times, which first reported the subpoenaed records, has also detailed that tens of thousands of dollars earmarked for the program was paid to Benton Cook, the husband of Democratic Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown. Benton Cook worked as a program coordinator but has said he didn't receive that much money.

A spokeswoman for Alvarez, who is a Democrat, declined to comment Wednesday.

Republicans called for an investigation into the program Quinn created after city pastors asked him to help fight violence. The timing, weeks before the November election, prompted critics to argue it was an attempt to woo voters before he won by a thin margin. However, Quinn has said he's long supported anti-violence efforts; The program was designed to offer training to help young people get jobs, offer parenting skills and help for people getting out of prison.

Republican state Sen. Jason Barickman, among those calling for a probe, applauded Alvarez' efforts.

"This represents tens of millions of taxpayer dollars that was used as a political slush fund," Barickman said in a statement. "This blatant fraud and abuse has to be stopped, and those responsible need to be held accountable in a criminal court."

Alvarez's office asked for memos related to the program from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which oversees community grants. Spokesman Dave Roeder said more than 1,000 pages were turned over, including for the Chicago Area Project which targeted a West Side neighborhood.

"We have no tolerance for any fraud or misbehavior ..." Roeder said. "We're responding to any requests for information on this."

Quinn has said he addressed issues ahead of the audit, including abolishing the agency that once ran it.

Still, the timing hasn't been ideal, considering the federal complaint alleging politically-connected hiring at IDOT.

"There's certainly the potential there that would be a scandal on his watch or closely tied to people in the governor's office," said Kent Redfield who teaches at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "That would be a serious problem for the governor in terms of how he's promoting his re-election campaign."

Last week, attorney Michael Shakman, whose decades long court case has led to bans on political hiring in the Chicago area, filed a complaint alleging practices that began under Blagojevich continued into Quinn's tenure. That included reclassifying positions so they'd be exempt from state hiring rules and politics could be considered. This week in court, an attorney for Quinn's administration publicly acknowledged an ongoing investigation of hiring practices by Illinois' inspector general.

On Wednesday, Republican congressmen asked for an investigation to determine if federal funds were used to subsidize the hiring in question.

Democratic party leaders said they didn't think the issues would taint Quinn.

"I don't think anybody can make a valid argument that Gov. Quinn is following in the footsteps of the Blagojevich administration," said Will County Democratic Central Committee chairman Scott Pyles. "Gov. Quinn has put forward a lot of different reforms to prevent abuses and trying to pursue even others."

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