Just days before the 2010 gubernatorial election, two of Gov. Pat Quinn's top lieutenants were talking about expanding a controversial anti-crime grant program to East St. Louis.
That program, called the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, is now the subject of a federal investigation. Republicans say the program was a slush fund which the Democratic governor utilized to sprinkle $55 million to organizations across the Chicago area -- in an effort to shore up voter turnout in one of Quinn's best political bases. Quinn strongly denies the allegations.
Emails obtained by the News-Democrat show that the former head of the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, Barbara Shaw, wrote to the head of another state agency about expanding the program to downstate, including East St. Louis.
The email was sent Oct. 25, 2010 -- just eight days before the election -- to Michelle Saddler, the head of the Illinois Department of Human Services.
"Hi, Michelle. Any further thoughts about taking NRI to Rockford, Decatur and East St. Louis?" Shaw stated in the email. "If we want to do that, it would be great to announce it this week."
Saddler, as secretary of the Department of Human Services, served on the Violence Prevention Authority's board.
Shaw, whose emails have been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury, could not be reached for comment. Shaw submitted a retirement letter in August 2012, roughly three months after the Illinois House asked that her program be audited.
State Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, who was one of the first state lawmakers to call for an audit of the program, said the timing of Shaw's email raises concern.
"Timing is everything," Kay said. "East St. Louis typically turns out a lot of votes for one party, so it was probably very inviting for someone -- either Barbara Shaw or some other person working in the campaign -- to maybe have a good way to spur enthusiasm in East St. Louis, from a voter-turnout standpoint."
Quinn, in a statement provided by a spokeswoman, said he has directed all state agencies to fully cooperate in the investigation of the grant program.
"While this program was launched to combat an epidemic of violence in 2010, serious oversight and management issues developed that were unacceptable," Quinn said in the statement. "If any grantee has done anything wrong, they should be held fully accountable."
The Neighborhood Recovery Initiative never expanded beyond Chicago neighborhoods. It's not clear why the program never included East St. Louis, which often is listed as one of America's most dangerous cities. Emails gathered by the Illinois Auditor General's office as part of a separate investigation into the program do not include any other mentions of an expansion to downstate.
It's also unclear whether the suggestion of a possible downstate expansion originated with Shaw, Saddler or someone else. A spokeswoman for Saddler's office referred questions to a spokeswoman for the Illinois Criminal Justice Information, which became responsible for the grant program after the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority was abolished in 2013.
"NRI was created during a time of a heightened urgency and need for resources to address Chicago-area youth violence," said Cristin Evans, the spokeswoman for the Criminal Justice Information Authority. "During program development discussions, of which Barbara Shaw and Ms. Saddler were a part, Rockford, Decatur and East St. Louis were considered for inclusion. At the time, youth in these cities were being served by another state-funded anti-violence initiative: Safety Net Works."
Evans said Rockford, Decatur and East St. Louis received money in 2011 and 2012 through the Safety Net Works program. East St. Louis received $280,000 for its Safety Net Works program in state fiscal years 2011 and 2012.
But the Chicago communities that were chosen for the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative also received grants from the Safety Net Works program. In fact, that was one of the components of the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative -- to expand the Safety Net Works program in the chosen Chicago-area communities.
Kay said East St. Louis residents should feel slighted. He said taxpayer dollars that were wasted on the grant program could have been put toward effective crime-fighting tools in the cities that need them most.
"If you're an East St. Louis resident, I think you feel slighted in a very serious way," Kay said. "Even in the Chicago area, where the money was spent, it was not spent in the most-violent crime areas. Instead, what we find is that the money was used and spent in many different ways that had nothing to do with crime prevention, and it was not in the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago."
Evans said downstate wasn't slighted.
"In total, nearly $2 million was allocated for violence-prevention in East St. Louis, Decatur and Rockford in 2011 and 2012," she said.
Evans also noted that East St. Louis, Decatur and Rockford did at one point receive some NRI-related money -- $93,000 apiece in "unspent funds" that came "from the NRI funding stream."
Illinois Auditor General William Holland, in a report issued in February, said the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority could provide no documentation showing how communities were selected to receive the grant money.
The grants were sent to 23 communities in Cook County. The audit found that seven of Chicago's 20 most-violent neighborhoods, according to Chicago Police statistics, did not receive grant money.
The auditor reported there were "pervasive deficiencies" in the way the program was planned, implemented and managed.
One component of the program involved training residents of the communities, both parents and youths, to serve as "mentors" to their peers. The individuals were paid to provide mentoring to their peers, but the audit found that time-keeping records in many cases were non-existent or poorly maintained.
The advice given by the mentors also has been questioned. In one instance, a mentor gave advice to a mother about how to deal with a child who violated curfew.
"I told her to tell him that night is the prime time that youth get harassed and killed by the police," the mentor wrote in his report.
The same mentor gave similar advice to another mother: "We talked about speaking with child about danger of being out on streets late, such as shootings, police brutality, influence of bad things from other peers," the mentor wrote in his report.
Kay said: "I don't know what to make of that. I don't know that the NRI program was out there espousing that viewpoint, but I hope that wasn't the case. Still, it's a real slap at the Chicago Police Department."
Another mentor wrote in a report about counseling a single mother of three children, ages 18, 19 and 20, who "needs time to herself."
That mentor also wrote: "I think she will be fine. She just needs to put those children out and move on with her life. She needs to let them live and learn on their own."
Among the auditor's other findings:
* There was no competitive process for determining which community groups would serve as the "lead agency" in each of the 23 communities. Instead, the agencies were selected by Chicago aldermen.
* Auditors reviewed expense reports at 23 of the many subcontracted groups that worked under the 23 lead agencies. At those 23 subcontracted groups, the auditors found 40 percent of the expenses to be questionable.
Auditors discovered expenditures on items such as video games, pony rentals and a golf outing.
* Some of the community organizations had shaky finances to begin with, and three of them went out of business during the program. One organization went belly-up even though it was receiving $1.6 million in NRI money as well as $550,000 in two other grants from the Violence Prevention Authority.
The program was hastily developed.
Quinn met with a group of ministers in Chicago on Aug. 13, 2010, to discuss violence in the region. Five days later, the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority was directed to develop a program that invested $20 million to address problems in the Chicago area.
Thirteen days later, the program's investment grew to $30 million. Then, on Oct. 6, 2010, Quinn had a news conference to announce the start of a $50 million program.
"Again, we saw no documentation at IVPA that showed any analysis as to why the increase in program funding, or who made the decision," the auditor general reported.
Shaw, in emails leading up to the launch of the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, told people the program was on a "fast track."
That raised red flags even among the board members at the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority. They questioned the ability to get money at a time when the state was slow in providing payments to other providers of social services.
According to IVPA board minutes, a representative of Quinn's office told the board on Sept. 30, 2010, that Quinn was "committed to allocating some of the funds for this initiative immediately and will allocate the rest after the election."
The election also was mentioned by Shaw in an email to the chief of staff at Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office. The attorney general served on the board for IVPA.
In the email dated Nov. 5, 2010, which was three days after the election, Shaw wrote: "I'm just checking in to see if there has been a decision on the raises/bonus question for my managers. I don't know if I made it clear, but I would prefer to do raises, particularly given that, as a result of Tuesday's outcome, there is now a likelihood that this big initiative will continue beyond one year."
The program called for the hiring of more than 2,000 adults and youth who would receive training and serve as "mentors" to other adults and youth. Shaw, during the news conference for the kickoff of the NRI program, said youth "need some dollars in their pocket in order to be able to feel strong ... and participate in their community without having to turn to illegal means to get those dollars in their pocket."
Records show the workers' duties often were handing out anti-violence pamphlets and refrigerator magnets, or posting to Facebook or Twitter.
Records also show that workers were often paid to attend community events such as a Gospel music festival.
A CNN investigation found that grant money was used to pay participants to march in a parade with Quinn, take field trips to museums and attend yoga classes. And one organization spent $2,000 in grant money on gift cards for two staffers.
A Chicago Tribune investigation found that one organization used money to send a busload of residents to Springfield to lobby for keeping the grant money flowing.
Kay said he's found evidence that groups used grant money to paint churches and other buildings.
"I'm not saying those aren't worthy causes, but should they be part of an anti-violence program?" Kay said. "How does that keep crime down? That's not exactly the way I would see that program working."
Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at email@example.com