PI Original Ellyn Fortino Friday May 15th, 2015, 4:37pm

State Audit Of Chicago Community Group A 'Political Witch Hunt,' Critics Say

Progress Illinois takes another look at the controversy surrounding a recently approved state audit of the Chicago-based Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.

recently approved state audit of a Chicago community group's use of taxpayer money is being called a "political witch hunt" by some critics of the move.

At issue is a state resolution, HR 324, that cleared the full Illinois House unanimously last month. It directs the Illinois Auditor General to conduct a performance audit of state money awarded to the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) since fiscal year 2010 for youth programming and other purposes.

Leaders of KOCO, an African American-led grassroots group on Chicago's South Side, say they will comply with the audit, even though they think it is based on what they say are false claims.

State Rep. Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley) introduced the audit resolution, and state Rep. Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago) -- who represents the city's South Side and faced a primary challenge last year from KOCO's former executive director Jay Travis -- signed on as one of four co-sponsors. KOCO has been a loud critic of Mitchell for, among other things, his position on education issues.

Besides Mitchell, no other Chicago lawmaker sponsored the audit legislation, which claims KOCO received "funds from the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative and Illinois Violence Prevention Authority." KOCO denies ever having received funding as part of NRI, the state's scandal-plagued anti-violence program that is no longer in operation.

"KOCO never received NRI money," KOCO's education organization Jitu Brown stressed at a Thursday morning press conference outside the Thompson Center. "There's a much better use of taxpayer dollars than to harass a community-based organization that may happen to disagree with you on policy issues."

NRI was a taxpayer-funded, anti-violence program operated under former Gov. Pat Quinn's administration and implemented by the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority (IVPA). The troubled program was found to be "inadequate" in an audit released last year by the Illinois Auditor General. Quinn replaced the IVPA with the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority in 2012 after the governor's office learned of the problems with NRI through its own investigation.

The Illinois Auditor General's office told Progress Illinois last month that the NRI audit released last year found no indication that KOCO received funding from the IVPA for the NRI program between October 2010 and October 2012. That time period represents the first two years of the anti-violence initiative and the years examined in the state audit.

KOCO has, however, received grant funding in the past as part of the now-discontinued Safety Net Works (SNW) program, another state anti-violence initiative that focused on youth programming. SNW, an effort led by the Department of Human Services, was started by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2007. The IVPA was among several agencies involved with SNW.

In its 2014 NRI audit, the state's auditor general noted that SNW's expansion was considered to be "an integral part of NRI."

"The NRI design necessitated an expansion (increased grant amounts) of SNW youth violence prevention programming in existing communities and an addition of grant monies for SNW in the communities that did not have SNW," the NRI audit reads.

SNW programs were operated in communities across the state and each had a lead agency and community partner groups.

In 2012, KOCO was one of three partner agencies delivering youth programming in the city of Chicago's "Grand Boulevard" SNW community. That year, KOCO was awarded grants totaling about $30,000, according to state records. KOCO Executive Director Jawanza Malone said his group also participated in SNW in 2011.

While working as a SNW partner agency, Malone said KOCO considered the program to be separate from NRI.

"We stated in the past the we did get funding from the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, but none of the documentation that we received ever indicated any relationship with NRI, and so that's how we understood it ... [That] while NRI and Safety Net Works as well as other programs that came out of Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, that they were separate and distinct," he explained.

"We don't have any documentation that mentions the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative at all," Malone added.

At Thursday's press conference, representatives from three community groups -- Northside Action for Justice, the Lawndale Alliance and the United African Organization -- joined KOCO leaders in questioning the audit's purpose and why Mitchell, in particular, co-sponsored it.

Valerie Leonard with the Lawndale Alliance said the state doles out "thousands and thousands of grants" to groups across the state each year. And at a time when lawmakers are staring down a $6 billion deficit in the upcoming budget year and "trying to increase efficiencies," Leonard said it is curious that KOCO is being "singled out" for an audit.

Audit-related legislation "should be fair, and not just targeting one organization for [a] political witch hunt," she said.

Marc Kaplan with Northside Action for Justice added that some Chicago-based elected officials "want to see KOCO tied up."

"And they want to have this be a model so that they can then go after organizations in their parts of the city to destroy them also," Kaplan said. "We're not going to allow that to happen."

KOCO leaders and their supporters are convinced the audit came at the request of Mitchell.

But Mitchell says that is not the case.

"No, look, Leader Mautino's been on the Legislative Audit Commission for some time," Mitchell told Progress Illinois. "And my understanding is that they've [KOCO] been on their radar for some time. I think based on the text of the resolution, you can see why."

Mitchell was referring in part to the resolution's claims that KOCK was an NRI fund recipient and that the group also "received significant increases" in state grant funds in 2013 and 2014 for out-of-school time programs, even though the city of Chicago found them ineligible for such programming in the same years.

As for why he co-sponsored the legislation, Mitchell said: "In a time when I'm asking taxpayers to pay more for the services that we all care about, I have to be willing to take a look at folks who are doing work, even if it's in my own backyard. And that is my only motivation here."

In an interview last month, Mautino told Progress Illinois that he was prompted to request an audit of KOCO primarily to find out why the state continued to give KOCO grant money in 2013 and 2014 for out-of-school time programs, even though the city of Chicago deemed the group unqualified for such funding as part of federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). In addition, Mautino said he wants the auditor general to further probe into the NRI funding issue.

"If we have the same programs that we're funding as the city of Chicago, then why did the city of Chicago choose to drop their [KOCO's] funding," Mautino asked last month. "It may be as simple as they're broke, the state of Illinois is broke, and if they can get money from us as opposed to the city, then the city can back off a little. That's acceptable. If there's something deeper, then that's something I'd like to know."

The last year KOCO received CDBG funding from the city was in 2012.

The city of Chicago's "executive summary report" for KOCO's 2013 CDBG application, which was ultimately rejected, cites several "strengths" and "weaknesses" in the group's application.

One weakness in the application, which requested a grant of $37,476, included the organization's failure to "submit background checks, professional qualifications, or resumes for the identified staff members on the program budget." Under weaknesses, the application evaluation summary also says, "The organization's budget listed $37,476.30 strictly for personnel and fringes." As for strengths, the summary notes that the "organization is proposing to serve 30 youth ages six to 12 with an academic program with additional services" and that the group "demonstrated a 15 percent match on the program budget."

Malone said KOCO was told its proposal to the city was rejected because "it was a competitive process, and that there are a number of groups that did not get funding renewed, and we happen to be one of those groups."

Malone further noted that KOCO has been audited twice by the Illinois Department of Human Services, for years 2012 through 2014, and "they haven't found a fiscal impropriety."

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