Granting Favors?

Funds from Gov. Quinn's controversial anti-violence grant program benefitted ally of political supporter.

Young job seekers in Chicago's south suburbs stood to benefit from almost a half-million dollars awarded by Gov. Pat Quinn's now-defunct anti-violence grant program that's under investigation.

But some of that money went to a local government official with ties to Thornton Township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli, a south suburban power broker and political supporter of Quinn, the Better Government Association found.

A nonprofit affiliated with Zuccarelli received the big grant from Quinn's Neighborhood Recovery Initiative (NRI) with funds earmarked for mentoring and youth employment programs.

Also benefitting was another organization run by Thornton Township Youth Director Jerry Weems, a Zuccarelli underling and campaign contributor. Weems' organization was paid almost $10,000 with NRI funds and Weems himself was paid additional salary with state grant money.

A separate company owned by a Weems family member was paid another $3,600 with NRI funds, according to interviews and records obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Through a spokesman, Weems and Zuccarelli declined to comment. A Quinn spokesman says political connections had no bearing on the NRI grant.

Launched by Quinn amid his 2010 election bid, the $54.5 million NRI program was intended to fund anti-violence efforts in the Chicago area. Some of the money ended up with groups and individuals with clout – fueling accusations by critics that Quinn used NRI to shore up his political base during a campaign. Quinn denies the allegation.

Meanwhile, prosecutors are trying to determine whether any grant money was improperly spent or distributed.

Zuccarelli, a key political ally of Quinn's, is known for turning out votes in the state's largest township, which spans all or parts of 17 south suburbs. Quinn narrowly defeated Republican Bill Brady in 2010 but he won Thornton Township by a wide margin.

Here's what the BGA learned from interviews and a review of documents relating to the Zuccarelli-affiliated nonprofit and its grant:

The Quinn administration initially identified about two-dozen so-called "lead agencies" to divvy up the NRI grant money. In the Thornton Township area, that job fell to Healthcare Consortium of Illinois, a Dolton-based nonprofit.

Jaclin Davis, wife of state Rep. Will Davis (D-Homewood) worked for the group. Her husband and Zuccarelli were on an advisory board that helped select grant recipients.

Healthcare Consortium gave the Zuccarelli-affiliated non-profit Thornton Township Youth Committee Program Inc. a grant of more than $466,000, state records show. (At least $130,000 in unused funds was later returned to Healthcare Consortium.)

Weems, in addition to serving as the township's youth director, was executive director of the nonprofit, which provides counseling and other services for troubled youths and their families.

Though technically separate, Thornton Township and Youth Committee Program are closely aligned – the township processes the nonprofit's payroll and operating expenses, and provides it with office space, staff and other supporting services.

With the NRI grant money, the nonprofit paid teens and young adults $8.50 an hour to pass out anti-violence literature at public events.

It also paid Weems' own non-profit organization, Vision Management Services, $9,600 in 2012 for leading young adult workshops on stress management, anger resolution and basic social skills, according to interviews and a copy of a recent federal tax return filed by Youth Committee Program.

Zuccarelli signed the checks that ultimately went to Weems' organization.

Youth Committee Program also paid Weems' salary of more than $14,000 in 2011 and 2012 with NRI funds. The payments were in addition to Weems' annual township pay (currently $127,722), according to interviews and public records.

Separately, Youth Committee Program paid Enhanced Skillstreaming Professionals Inc. $3,600 with NRI funds in a fiscal year that ended June 30, 2013. State records show that private company owned by Toinette Hill, Weems' sister-in-law. Hill declined to comment.

The township spokesman asked the BGA to send questions in writing but ultimately never responded. Instead, he issued a statement saying a "careful review of the facts . . . will show that all dollars from the NRI Grant awarded to [Youth Committee Program] have been accounted for; all contracted services were provided under the terms of the grant."

In addition to working for Zuccarelli, Weems is a campaign contributor.

He donated $3,275 since 2005 to campaign funds controlled by Zuccarelli, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. One donation from Weems to Zuccarelli, for $200, was reported to the state elections board in late October 2010 – roughly three weeks after Quinn announced the creation of NRI.

Local and federal authorities are investigating amid reports that grant money went to the politically connected, including Benton Cook III, the husband of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown.

Last year, Quinn named Zuccarelli to the Chicago Transit Authority board but the supervisor later resigned from the $25,000-a-year post after a Quinn political opponent questioned the appointment.

Told of the BGA findings, a Quinn spokesman said via email: "If any grantee is found to have acted improperly, they should be held accountable. The Governor has directed state agencies to fully support law enforcement inquiries."

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association's Andrew Schroedter, who can be reached at (312) 821-9035 or aschroedter@bettergov.org.

Image credit: Frank Zuccarelli photo by Brian Jackson~Sun-Times