PI Original Ellyn Fortino Tuesday April 21st, 2015, 6:18pm

Questions Swirl Around Illinois Audit Of Chicago Community Group

As mandated in an Illinois House resolution passed unanimously last week, the office of the Illinois Auditor General plans to conduct a performance audit of state funds provided to the Chicago-based Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. The resolution calling for the audit suggests that the South Side community group received funding from the now-defunct Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, a claim KOCO leaders say is false. Progress Illinois takes a closer look at the issue.

Last week, the Illinois House unanimously passed a resolution directing the state's Auditor General to conduct a performance audit of state funds provided to the Chicago-based Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, or KOCO.

The resolution, HR 324, passed through the full House on April 17 by a 105-0 vote. It calls on Illinois Auditor General William Holland's office to commence a performance audit of state dollars given to KOCO "under contracts or grant agreements" in fiscal years 2010 through 2015 for various purposes, including after school youth programming.

KOCO -- a South Side organization that seeks to engage and assist low-income and working families in the Kenwood, Oakland and adjacent neighborhoods in Chicago -- received $1.3 million in state funding since fiscal year 2010 and was a "recipient of funds from the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative and Illinois Violence Prevention Authority," reads the resolution, introduced by State Rep. Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley). The resolution does not specify the amount of money KOCO allegedly received as part of the state's now-defunct anti-violence program operated under former Gov. Pat Quinn's administration.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday morning, KOCO's Executive Director Jawanza Malone said his group was blindsighted by the resolution, co-sponsored by state Reps. Jack Franks (D-Woodstock), Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton), David McSweeney (R-Barrington Hills) and Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago).

The resolution is based on a "false assertion" that KOCO received NRI funding, Malone said.

"Though KOCO received additional state funding to hire youth for a summer job program, the resolution attempts to connect it to NRI, which is false," Malone told reporters. "There is no record of an executed contract between KOCO and NRI. This resolution calls for the Auditor General to look into KOCO's state funds, with which we will comply, as we have in the past."

NRI was a taxpayer-funded, anti-violence program 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.

Cook County authorities and federal investigators in Springfield have since launched probes into the anti-violence program, which was also the subject of state legislative hearings held last year by the Legislative Audit Commission, co-chaired by Mautino.

Asked whether KOCO was connected in any way to the NRI program, Malone said, "There is no relationship that we've had with NRI," adding that, "The only semblance of a relationship is that we were an employer site for some young people (who were) with a partner agency who, I believe, may have received NRI funds" in the past.

The "partner agency" Malone referred to is the Gary Comer Youth Center. Malone said the Gary Comer Youth Center partnered with KOCO for youth employment opportunities back in 2013.

"We didn't get anything out of it, except being able to provide that opportunity for young people," Malone said. "There was no money at any point that was received from NRI that came into our organization, that came to any of the work that we're involved in."

Issued in February 2014, Holland's audit of state funds provided to the IVPA for NRI covered the first two years of the anti-violence initiative, between October 2010 and October 2012. Jim Dahlquist, administrative manager at the Illinois Auditor General's office, said in an email to Progress Illinois that the "records we obtained in the course of conducting that audit do not indicate that the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) received funds from IVPA for the NRI program during that time frame."

Malone, meanwhile, wondered why his group was being "singled out" for an audit.

"How did this even come about," he asked. "How is it that our organization is the only organization that's singled out in this resolution for something that we had absolutely nothing to do with? It just doesn't make sense to us."

In an interview with Progress Illinois, Mautino said the call for an audit of KOCO's use of state funds was prompted primarily by the fact that the organization, according to the resolution, "received significant increases in state grant allotments in calendar years 2013 and 2014, while the city of Chicago determined they were not qualified for continued participation in out-of-school time programs" as part of the federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG).

Mautino said it is common for lawmakers on the Legislative Audit Commission to get requests for audits from lawmakers and others "on different groups when funding is different from one funding agency to the next."

"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. "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."

At the same time, Mautino would like the Auditor General to take a closer look at whether KOCO received any money for NRI programming or from other groups involved with the anti-violence initiative. The KOCO audit, Mautino said, is "not a part of an expanded NRI audit." 

Dahlquist said the Auditor General's office plans to "commence the audit" of KOCO's use of public funds as "directed by HR324 as soon as possible." Dahlquist did not comment further, saying "We are neutral on all legislation and are unable to comment about on-going audits."

As for why the city of Chicago rejected KOCO's proposals for CDBG funding, which the city receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Malone said KOCO was told "that it was a very competitive process [and] there are less resources to go around, and that's why we didn't get any additional funding."

KOCO leaders suggested that local Ald. Will Burns (4th) may have influenced the city's determination that KOCO would not receive CDBG funding. Burns, who represents Kenwood and portions of Bronzeville and the South Loop, has been the target of various protests by KOCO over issues ranging from the future of Walter H. Dyett High School to a planned Mariano's grocery store slated for the former Ida B. Wells public housing site in Bronzeville.

Members of KOCO said Chicago aldermen weigh "in on CDBG grants all the time," adding that Burns is "no friend of ours."

According to city documents provided by Burns' office, two of KOCO's grant proposals for CDBG money were denied in part because there were problems with its applications, including a lack of "required supplemental information" and "clarity around data tracking."

Burns told Progress Illinois that he didn't announce support or opposition to the city regarding KOCO's CDBG grant funding applications.

Malone, meanwhile, also questioned the "motivation" behind Mitchell's co-sponsorship of the resolution. Mitchell's 26th legislative district includes Kenwood and other South Side communities. KOCO's former executive director, Jhatayn "Jay" Travis, made an unsuccessful bid last year to unseat Mitchell in the 26th legislative district's primary race. Mitchell also has close ties with Burns.

"I think it is suspicious that he [Mitchell], who has admitted to having Ald. Burns as one of his mentors, signed his name to something like this," Malone said. "Ald. Burns has in the past contacted our funders to get our funding cut because of positions we've held on issues."

In response to Malone's comments, Mitchell told Progress Illinois that "during these difficult financial times, it's my duty to be a faithful steward of taxpayer dollars."

"And what's important, I think, is that this resolution passed the House unanimously," Mitchell said. "Yes, I am a co-sponsor, but this was sponsored by Leader Mautino, who was on the Legislative Audit Commission."

For his part, Burns said the claim that he's worked to get KOCO's "funding cut" is false. However, he did say that he's had "conversations with people I know in philanthropy to suggest, to say, 'Hey look, I think sometimes their tactics are winner take all, zero sum' ... There's not a lot of room for compromise, quite frankly. It's either their way or the highway. And I'm not sure that's the way community organizing is supposed to be."

"I didn't say 'Don't fund them,'" Burns added. "I said, 'Look, you need to understand that this is how they relate to folks in [the] community."

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