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.