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Playing Politics With Chicago's Murder Epidemic

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn is facing growing questions about his failed $55 million plan to fight crime in the nation's murder capital.
Photo by Clayton Hauck for Pat Quinn for Illinois

This article originally appeared on VICE.

It was August 2010, and Chicago was in the middle of a bloody summer that had some state lawmakers calling for the National Guard to come in and patrol the streets. By August, the homicide count topped 270; by the end of month, another 58 people had been killed. Locked in a tight reelection campaign, and facing national pressure to do something about the city's stubbornly high crime rates, Illinois's Democratic Governor Pat Quinn responded to the crisis that fall, launching a major million anti-violence initiative that would invest in Chicago's most ravaged neighborhoods.


The $54.5 million, taxpayer-funded Neighborhood Recovery Initiative aimed to tackle the root causes of violence in Chicago's urban neighborhoods, giving grants through the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority to social welfare organizations that in turn contracted with community groups to provide a variety of services, including job training, youth mentoring, parenting classes, and part-time jobs, in 23 Chicago neighborhoods.

The initiative was rolled out quickly — too quickly, it turns out, according to a state audit of the NRI released earlier this year. The scathing report found that the program was disorganized and severely mismanaged, suggesting that as much as 40 percent of the funds for the initiative were wasted.

"The NRI program was hastily implemented, which limited the time [the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority] had to adequately plan for and implement the program," Illinois Auditor General William Holland wrote in the report. "No documentation existed showing how IVPA selected the NRI communities, and not all the most violent Chicago communities were included in the program."

Using the word "failed" more than 100 times, Holland questioned the patronage inherent in the program: Instead of choosing grantees through an objective analysis, Chicago aldermen were allowed to recommend and select lead agencies to receive NRI cash. According to the report, this system resulted in some strange funding choices, with seven of the city's 20 most violent communities excluded from receiving NRI grant funds.


The audit, commissioned in 2012 by state lawmakers from both parties, echoed years of media investigations and political criticism raising questions about NRI's financial mismanagement and lack of oversight of grantees. A Chicago Sun-Times report found that one nonprofit was given $15,770 in anti-violence funds to run a reentry program for young former inmates — but the program never existed. Another investigation, by theChicago Tribune, found that an economic development group hired to help finance to small businesses never made a single loan, but was nevertheless allowed to keep more than $150,000 when its contract was slashed.

To compound all of this, the NRI failed to achieve it's primary objective: Within two years of the program's rollout, Chicago's murder rate had increased by 20 percent. Amid these issues, Quinn disbanded the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority at the end of 2012, folding a scaled-down version of the NRI into another state agency.

Now, as Quinn faces another tight re-election race against Republican Bruce Rauner, the problems that plagued the NRI have come back to haunt the governor's reelection campaign. Two federal investigations into fraud and misspending at the NRI are underway and the Cook County State's Attorney's Office has also issued subpoenas. Last week, the state Legislative Audit Commission held its own hearings into the NRI, hearing two days of testimony in an effort to determine whether Quinn's office improperly cherry-picked the communities and agencies that received NRI funds.


"Here we have tens of millions of dollars that have been spent with little accountability," said Illinois Republican Sen. Jason Barickman, who serves as co-chair of the Legislative Audit Commission. "To date, we don't know that they've had any meaningful impact to combat violence in the city of Chicago."

Eager to shatter Quinn's reputation as an honest public servant, Republicans have pounced on the NRI scandal, characterizing the program as a "political slush fund" that the governor used to "buy votes" from black communities in Chicago during his 2010 reelection campaign. "This isn't a partisan issue," Rauner said in a press release earlier this month calling for an independent investigation of Quinn's alleged slush fund. "This is about transparency and accountability."

Last week's hearings provided little evidence to prove that Quinn used the NRI as a political tool. Although emails released before the hearings indicate that Quinn's campaign hoped to get a political boost from the program, Quinn's former aides, including the former head of the now-defunct violence prevention authority, said nothing to indicate that the governor's office was improperly directing funds to political allies. Instead, the testimony underscored what everyone has always known about the anti-violence initiative: That it was a well intentioned but poorly managed effort that wasted millions of taxpayer dollars in attempt to solve Chicago's very pressing violence problem.


"The auditor general's report makes it clear that much of the money from it was virtually thrown to the wind," said Matthew Dietrich, executive editor of Reboot Illinois, a nonpartisan group that engages citizens through digital and social media. "There's been a lot of legitimate criticism of how paying teenagers to hand out flyers on street corners will reduce violence."

Despite these problems, Dietrich added, there is no evidence that Quinn used the NRI as a political slush fund, as Republicans have alleged.

Over the course of the politically charged investigation, Democrats have defended Quinn. While conceding that the NRI was rife with problems, they argue that the initiative was a necessary intervention at the time it was implemented. And they've accused Rauner of failing to offer solutions to deal with epidemic violence in Chicago.

"Governor Quinn has continued to demonstrate that he's willing to make the tough decisions to invest in communities that need the most help," said Illinois Democratic state Senator Dan Kotowski. "The people who are criticizing this investment in these high-crime, high-poverty communities that are suffering are not offering any alternatives."

Weeks away from the election, the scandal appears not to have been a death knell for Quinn, with polls showing him leading Rauner by 2.7 points, according to RealClearPolitics. But for some, the NRI scandal has gone well beyond partisan bickering, confirming suspicions that when it comes to Illinois politics, corruption is never far away. And so far, neither Quinn nor Rauner has offered an enduring policy solution to abate Chicago's persistent violence.