February 21, 2012 03:50 PM
Questions Swirl Around State Grant Program
Feds investigate whether taxpayer money was misused; BGA finds dubious results in state job-training program after nearly $20 million in grants are awarded.
By Andrew Schroedter/BGA, with the AP
The Employment Opportunities Grant Program is a 5-year-old state government initiative aimed at diversifying trade unions in Illinois.
Since the program’s inception in 2007, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity has awarded $19.3 million in taxpayer-supported grants to groups – many privately run – that are supposed to use the money to prepare women and minorities to become union apprentices.
But while Employment Opportunities Grant Program’s (EOGP) intent may be "laudable," as one state lawmaker puts it, the Better Government Association found the results are questionable – with millions of dollars given to inexperienced nonprofits and only a small number of trainees ending up on the union rolls.
What’s more, the grant program now is the subject of a federal investigation that is focusing, at least in part, on whether money was improperly steered to select groups and misspent by recipients, the BGA has learned.
In a subpoena issued to the DCEO in September 2011, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Springfield demanded "any and all records" relating to the program, according to a copy of the subpoena recently obtained by the BGA under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
In addition, the subpoena specifically requests records for the following EOGP recipients that in 2009 shared $2.55 million in grants: We are our Brothers Keeper; Omega Uplift Foundation N.F.P.; Good Shepherd Community Services Organization; and Keep the Faith Foundation.
The subpoena also seeks personnel and other records for Deveda Francois, a state government worker who once oversaw EOGP but was removed for allegedly pressuring applicants to hire certain consultants, among other possible offenses, according to DCEO spokeswoman Kelly Jakubek.
James Lewis, the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois, declined to comment. Francois also would not comment when contacted by the BGA.
In recent years, federal prosecutors in Chicago and Springfield issued other subpoenas to numerous state agencies as part of an ongoing probe into social-service organizations that have received public funding. Some of the groups have ties to Illinois lawmakers such as now-former state Sen. Rickey Hendon, a Chicago Democrat who abruptly resigned last year.
But the EOGP-related subpoena apparently relates to a separate case. At the very least, it appears to have originated independently.
Jakubek says DCEO notified authorities in April 2010 of problems with the job-training program and Francois, its former manager.
"Our own internal process was able to find this and we let the authorities know," she says.
EOGP is a priority of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, which includes African-American legislators. Under the state-funded program, DCEO funnels money to local organizations that provide job training in fields such as painting, plumbing and carpentry. Ideally, the female and minority trainees, after boning up on the basics, are ready to test into a building trade apprenticeship program.
Run by organized labor, apprenticeship programs typically last several years. The programs are part of the process of becoming a full-fledged union member and, conceivably, landing a good-paying job with benefits.
Altogether, DCEO has awarded $19.3 million to 53 organizations, including community colleges, labor unions and nonprofits.
But, the BGA found that three of the groups named in the EOGP subpoena received sizable grants despite having little or no job-training experience in the trades, according to interviews and records.
The three groups are: We are our Brothers Keeper, which received $1.25 million in 2009; Omega Uplift Foundation N.F.P., which was given $550,000 in 2009; and Good Shepherd Community Services Organization, which was given $250,000 in 2009, according to public records.
Meanwhile, documents submitted to the state by those organizations show none of their trainees ended up as union apprentices, although state officials say not all "performance" documents were filed as required, so records are incomplete.
Two of the three groups, Chicago-based We are our Brothers Keeper and Omega Uplift, were kicked out of the program and ordered to return a portion of their funding for allegedly violating the rules relating to grants. The state, for instance, alleged they used grant money to pay themselves rent.
A third group, Good Shepherd, also based in Chicago, was ordered to return $116,000.
The fourth group under federal scrutiny, Keep the Faith, received $500,000 and placed 35 people in a union. Keep the Faith wasn’t suspended but DCEO has questioned some of its expenditures.
We are our Brothers Keeper, led by Regina Evans, former police chief of south suburban Country Club Hills, has returned about a quarter of the $1.25 million it received from DCEO. In July, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued to recover the remaining $917,000. Evans, who resigned as police chief in October, didn’t return messages. A Madigan spokeswoman said the suit is still pending.
"We have taken swift action over the last three years to improve and ensure the integrity of our grant process," Jakubek said in an email to the BGA. "And in the instances in which the taxpayers’ money was used improperly, we are working aggressively to recover that money."
DCEO is unable to say how many EOGP trainees have become union apprentices since the program began, as complete records don’t exist for some of the years (2008 and 2009) Francois was there, Jakubek says.
However, figures from 2007 and 2010, the most recent year figures are available, show very few trainees ended up as apprentices.
In fiscal year 2007, DCEO awarded $6.3 million to 14 organizations. Those groups accepted 751 trainees, and of that number 305 graduated and 114, or 15 percent, joined a union.
In fiscal year 2010, ending June 30, 2010, just under $3 million was awarded to 13 organizations.
Those groups accepted 458 trainees, though only 194 graduated and just 28, or 6 percent, joined a union, according to public records.
It’s worth noting that the construction trades have been battered by the recession, and many unions halted taking on new people since many of their veteran members had trouble finding work.
Either way, Jakubek said DCEO has since taken steps to improve its grant selection and monitoring processes, in response to some of the problems. The agency now uses professional grant evaluators to review applicants, and proposals are evaluated on more strict criteria such as quality of the curriculum and the personnel’s qualifications.
Also, Francois no longer oversees the program, Jakubek says.
DCEO has accused Francois of committing offenses such as interfering in grantees’ internal operations and pressuring them to hire certain consultants and employees while she oversaw EOGP, according to Jakubek.
Indeed, emails provided by the office of state Rep. Marlow Colvin (D-Chicago) show Francois asked the lawmaker to write a recommendation on behalf of Evans’ We are our Brothers Keeper.
Colvin agreed to do so but says he didn’t do anything improper. Lawmakers are routinely asked to recommend organizations, he says, but there is never any quid pro quo. He says even though lawmakers recommend a group, they are not responsible if that recipient doesn’t follow the rules.
"That’s not our job," he says. "It’s always been my argument that the state could do a better job vetting these programs."
Francois was terminated last February but was later reinstated by an independent auditor. She still works for DCEO, earning $75,372 a year as a public service administrator, but no longer oversees EOGP, Jakubek says.
Going forward, it remains to be seen if the changes bring better results when the new round of EOGP funding is released this year. Regardless, the black caucus and DCEO remain committed to the program.
"The purpose of EOGP was to create a training platform," says state Rep. Will Davis (D-Homewood), joint chair of the caucus. "That’s a laudable intent."
And once the job market improves, the hope is that more EOGP trainees will have opportunities to join trade unions, he says.
"You’re training people to take the exams but the opportunities have to be there," Davis adds. The trade unions, which traditionally have been dominated by white males, "talk about how many people they already have on the bench, and they don’t want to add more people."
This article was written and reported by BGA Investigator Andrew Schroedter. For questions, call (312) 821-9035 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.