Illinois Governor’s $1 Million Grant Under Investigation

Published July 1, 2008

With some lawmakers talking impeachment of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), state auditors are asking exactly how a $1 million grant for a church ended up going to a private school operator with a felony aggravated battery conviction on her record.

In April, after the Chicago Sun-Times revealed where the money went, Illinois lawmakers voted 105-0 to order an audit of the grant. On the same day lawmakers also voted overwhelmingly to reject an executive order by Blagojevich to consolidate 20 state agencies’ functions, including personnel decisions. It was the first rejection of an Illinois governor’s executive order since 1978.

“While the state is nearing financial crisis, the governor’s office is unable to explain how and why it gave away $1 million, and yet it expects the General Assembly to sit by idly while it grabs more hiring power,” said State Rep. Jack Franks (D-Woodstock). “At this point we have no other option than to call for a state audit in order to provide needed accountability to Illinois taxpayers.”

Only one chamber of the General Assembly is needed to order an audit or block an executive order.

Questions Unanswered

The moves came one month after Deputy Gov. Louanner Peters refused to answer almost 60 questions about the grant before a legislative hearing called by Franks.

Later in the month the House overwhelmingly approved a measure that would have given citizens a chance to amend the state constitution to allow for the recall of elected officials. Franks denies Blagojevich was the target, but he has been one of the governor’s most vocal opponents, despite being a fellow Democrat.

The state Senate, led by President Emil Jones (D-Chicago), blocked the measure by just three votes, leading some lawmakers to raise the idea of impeaching the governor, whose administration has been mired in political corruption scandals and trials.

‘Pay-to-Play’ Alleged

One of those scandals arose in a two-month federal corruption trial that ended in May, when witnesses against Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a powerful Blagojevich fundraiser and advisor, repeatedly brought up the governor’s name, alleging he was in on a scheme to exchange high-paying state jobs, contracts, and appointments to state boards for thousands of dollars in bribes.

The Chicago Tribune reported it had uncovered 235 donations of exactly $25,000 apiece (for a total of $5,865,000) to the governor. Three-fourths of those donations came from persons who received financial benefits from the Blagojevich administration.

Blagojevich’s immediate predecessor, former governor George Ryan (R), who is currently in federal prison for his own crimes while in office, received only 14 such donations of exactly $25,000, according to the Tribune report.

$1M Follows Pardon

Blagojevich ordered the $1 million grant in question to help rebuild Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, which burned to the ground in 2006. The church was renowned for its Gospel music heritage and architecture.

The money instead went to the Loop Lab School, a private facility whose owner, Chandra Gill, obtained a pardon from Blagojevich for a felony aggravated battery conviction against an off-duty downstate police officer. The pardon came shortly before the school received the money intended for the church.

Gill had been renting space at the church and says she used the money to purchase space for classrooms in Chicago. Her school has not reopened.

Blagojevich has told reporters the grant money went to the private school as a result of a “bureaucratic mix-up,” and he promised another $1 million to Pilgrim Baptist Church. The church had not received its money at press time.

“The governor has demonstrated a complete lack of accountability for the way he spends the hard-earned money of Illinois taxpayers,” Franks said.

Regarding Blagojevich’s overturned executive order to consolidate hiring in 20 state agencies, Franks said, “The public is finding out more and more every day about the improper hiring practices of the governor’s office. This is no time to give more power to an administration that is proving to be very untrustworthy when it comes to hiring state employees or doling out state contracts.”

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Budget & Tax News.