A Chicago anti-violence program gets belated scrutiny

Why did it take nearly four years for Illinois reporters to start covering the story with gusto?

CHICAGO, IL — In February, Illinois Auditor General William Holland dropped what amounted to a political bombshell: a scathing audit of an anti-violence program created by Gov. Pat Quinn, who still casts himself as a political outsider as he prepares for his second re-election bid in November. 

The $54.5 million program—formally called the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative—had telltale signs of Illinois-style politics written all over it, according to the audit’s findings and ensuing news reports. At best, the now-defunct program was a smattering of well-intentioned but poorly managed initiatives with leaky finances that profited Quinn’s political allies while offering uncertain social benefits. At worst, it was a vehicle for a blatant scheme to curry favor for the governor’s re-election campaign that cynically squandered anti-violence funds.

Since the audit’s release, reporters all over the state have been on a feeding frenzy. The Chicago Sun-Times, in particular, has been doing a stellar job of diving deep to report on the NRI, breaking a number of stories along the way.

All good, except that the NRI was created way back in 2010—a few weeks before the last time Quinn stood for governor. (The former lieutenant governor, Quinn had assumed the top seat in 2009 after Rod Blagojevich was indicted.)

So why did it take so long for reporters to look closely into the NRI? A busy news agenda and a sense that the program was “business as usual” may have been part of it—but it’s hard not to see a connection to the diminished condition of most newsrooms. The big Chicago papers have shown this spring that they can still dig into a juicy story. But having the firepower to perform bread-and-butter watchdog work on every major policy initiative, checking in just to see if a story is there, is another matter.

A “good old-fashioned follow-the-money” story

During the course of reporting for this story, I reached out to journalists and media observers across Chicago and the state. Ten reporters from Illinois’ two biggest newspapers—the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times—either declined to comment on the record or did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Among the journalists who did reply, not everyone sees much sign that reporters were slow to the story.

Rich Miller, a veteran statehouse reporter known for his widely circulated Capitol Fax newsletter and column, said the issue is fairly simple: “The answer to your question is pretty self-evident,” Miller told me in an email. “We didn’t have an official audit result” until this year.

But the NRI warranted earlier, more proactive reporting, says Mick Dumke, a senior writer at Chicago Reader, an alt-weekly for which he covers Chicago’s City Hall. “In retrospect, this seems like a big deal; a lot of money was put into it, and the timing of it—right before the election, of course—raises a red flag,” says Dumke, who rarely ventures out to cover state politics but has written about Chicago’s violence extensively.

Steve Rhodes, editor and publisher of The Beachwood Reporter, a Chicago-centric news site, chalks up the paucity of pre-audit coverage to the tendency among journalists to forget to follow up on important news developments—a pattern he has dubbed “jour-nesia.”

But the NRI “was created at the time when violence in Chicago was making all kinds of headlines, so it seems a little surprising that it was kind of forgotten about,” says Rhodes, who posted his take on the issue on his site last month.

And there was at least one point when Illinois journalists got a reminder to check in on the NRI. In December 2012, CNN published a story titled, “Questions surround $55 million program to cut violence in Chicago.” The story wasn’t as damning as the state audit, or the local coverage that followed in the audit’s wake, but it highlighted many of the same concerns, from hasty implementation to poor record-keeping to the lack of any real attempt to measure whether the program was working.

“Our focus was a good old-fashioned follow-the-money: What was the intent of the program, and how was the money being spent?” says Scott Zamost, a senior investigative producer who worked on the story. 

Though the CNN piece was the most comprehensive media examination of the NRI until this year, it didn’t prompt aggressive local follow-up. (Full disclosure: At the time, I was the interim editor at The Chicago Reporter, an investigative magazine, and I count myself as guilty as anyone for not being on top of the story.)

For Brant Houston, the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the fact that a national network was out ahead on a local story “is another manifestation of the fact that we’ve lost a lot of journalists, particularly in the newspaper business.”

A couple of decades ago, Houston says, examining programs like the NRI was a routine work. “When there was a new government program, … especially on its first anniversary, it was pretty typical to check out how the program was going,” says Houston, who served as the executive director of the Investigative Reporters and Editors from 1997 to 2008. “We don’t have the capacity right now, so there’s a lot of checks-and-balances, watchdog work that are just not getting done. Until we get that capacity somehow again, these kinds of stories will go by the board for a while.”

Criticisms from the start

When Quinn announced the creation of the NRI on Oct. 6, 2010, there was little question about the need for some anti-violence measures. By then, headlines about violence in Chicago had begun to dominate the news, with some state lawmakers even calling for members of the National Guard to be deployed to patrol the city’s streets. The “Windy City” was starting to be known as “Chiraq.”

Against this backdrop, the NRI hardly seemed out of place. But, from the outset, criticisms came—from two camps.

The first was nonprofit organizations that had been contracted to provide services for the state. The reason for their criticism was personal: The cash-strapped state government had been late in paying its bills to these agencies, and they were furious that more than $50 million seemed to magically appear out of nowhere to pay for the NRI.

The second was Quinn’s GOP opponents, who charged that the NRI funds were, in essence, a “political slush fund” intended to help boost support and turnout in violence-plagued, heavily black, and heavily Democratic communities in Chicago and Cook County.

For the most part, reporters dutifully covered the complaints from the two camps, but none of the articles gave the NRI an in-depth look. To be fair, there were plenty of competing stories that were screaming out for reporters’ attention around that time: the 2010 election, the trial and retrial of Blagojevich, the state pension crisis, Chicago’s homicide epidemic itself—just to name a few.

More problematic, given the warning signs surrounding the NRI from the start, was the lack of follow-up.

Meanwhile, Zamost and his CNN team were smelling something juicy. They had been tipped off to the NRI while researching another story, and they jumped on it.

To hear Zamost tell it, the story was tougher and more time-consuming than he had anticipated. “This turned out to be a very intensive paper-trail story, and it got more interesting as it went along … because there was a great amount of resistance in getting what we thought was fairly straightforward public records on the NRI program,” says Zamost, who joined CNN from a Miami TV station in 2008. “It took months and months and months to get those records, and, at every turn, there seemed to be resistance. There were delays. They couldn’t find records. Some of the people we called hung up on us and were not cooperative at all.”

Eventually, Zamost’s team managed to put the story together and got Quinn to agree to an interview. On camera, the governor defended the NRI and dismissed his critics’ claim of political gamesmanship as “a lot of baloney, and you know they know that.”

But Quinn was less forceful when the questions turned to the NRI’s lack of results—fully two years after the program was launched. “You take it one year at a time and you try to evaluate the programs and find out what is working and what isn’t working so well,” Quinn said. “And you focus on the things that work well.”

Given that Chicago homicides had spiked precipitously in 2012 after actually falling from 2009 to 2011, that might have been a good time for local reporters to start asking: So what does work well, how do we know it’s working, and how is policy changing? By and large, that didn’t happen.

The audit grabs reporters’ attention

By the time the CNN story came out, the state audit was well underway. When it finally came out earlier this year, the audit detailed a laundry list of problems in unusually harsh language: From the get-go, the program was too hastily implemented; Chicago aldermen were allowed to select lead agencies; no documentation was kept for the selection process for fund recipients; a large chunk of Chicago’s most violent communities were overlooked, while comparatively safer neighborhoods saw funding; and, despite what Quinn told CNN, the program had no mechanism for evaluating its results. The state apparently even failed to recover unexpended funds from agencies that went out of business.

After that, the dam broke open. A state legislative commission is looking into the NRI, and separate probes have been launched by county and federal prosecutors. The official actions have provided plenty of grist for the media, but journalists here have also done important independent digging.

Whether the NRI controversy will ultimately have any impact on Quinn’s re-election bid is unclear. Five months, after all, is an eternity in politics, and the state is facing plenty of other issues. And, as Dumke of the Reader notes, the story surrounding NRI could still shift. “If I was one of the governor’s people, I’d be looking for good things that came out of this program,” he says.

That should give some food for thought to reporters, Dumke adds. “What did really happen with this program?” he asks. “The impression we have right now is that every single dollar has been pissed away, but I don’t know if that’s true. People are still being killed up here at an astounding rate, and did this program do any good whatsoever? I’d like to know the answer to that question as well.”

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Rui Kaneya is CJR's correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. A former investigations editor at The Chicago Reporter, Kaneya was a recipient of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Minority Fellowship and the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Minority Fellowship in Urban Journalism. He has received numerous journalism awards, among them the Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists’ Salute to Excellence National Media Award. Follow him on Twitter @ruikaneya. Tags: , , , , , ,