Lawmakers delay probe of Gov. Quinn's defunct anti-violence program

CHICAGO – A bipartisan panel of Illinois lawmakers voted Thursday to postpone grilling people connected with Gov. Pat Quinn's anti-violence program, bowing to the wishes of the U.S. Justice Department, which has a criminal investigation underway.

Though the Legislative Audit Commission bickered for hours Wednesday over how to proceed, members voted unanimously to call seven subpoenaed witnesses Oct. 8, complying with the 90-day respite requested by U.S. Attorney James Lewis in Springfield. Lewis feared testimony before the commission would jeopardize his probe.

But the delay could spell additional trouble for the Democratic governor, shining a spotlight on the $55 million Neighborhood Recovery Initiative about a month before voters decide between him and Republican Bruce Rauner. The challenger has pounded Quinn over the plan that the state auditor general called hastily implemented, mismanaged and, in some cases, a poor use of money.

"We have agreed to honor the U.S. attorney's request, which specifically asked that we not hear testimony at this time," commission co-chairman Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, said Thursday in a prepared statement. "No one on this commission wants to interfere with the important work of the U.S. attorney's office as they look for possible criminal activity in Quinn's failed NRI program."

NRI was started in the fall of 2010 as a means to reduce violence in about two dozen Chicago-area neighborhoods. Aldermen were consulted about which organizations should receive the program's money, which began as a $20 million initiative but quickly topped $50 million.

Republicans claim it was a political slush fund for Quinn, given that year's tight election race, but the governor has repeatedly denied that, saying he does not tolerate impropriety and wrongdoers should be held accountable.

Thursday's brief meeting in Chicago followed a day of partisan animosity. Republicans wanted to reconvene at the end of Lewis's break, while Democrats wanted to do that only if Lewis gave the go-ahead. Neither proposal won enough votes to prevail.

Barickman said he and co-chairman Rep. Frank Mautino, a Democrat from Spring Valley, spoke Thursday morning with Lewis, who assured them that he would not put the state's inquiry off further.

The commission subpoenaed seven former members of Quinn's administration identified with the NRI program. Only one, Billy Ocasio, appeared before the panel, while five others sent attorneys. All indicated they would not testify because of the Justice Department request. Former aide Malcom Weems did not appear, nor did a representative.

The Quinn administration and some of the witnesses turned over documents – in the case of Quinn, thousands of pages of emails. The commission will post them on its website.