- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 8, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) - The former agency head overseeing Gov. Pat Quinn’s troubled anti-violence program gave state lawmakers a contrasting picture Wednesday, saying the 2010 initiative largely worked, creating jobs and opportunities during a violent time for the Chicago area.

Former Illinois Violence Prevention Authority Executive Director Barbara Shaw spoke publicly for the first time about the now-defunct program, spending hours detailing how it was run, while the GOP seized on 2010 emails from Quinn’s former chief aide released to the commission mentioning the program in the context of the 2010 election. Questions over the program have dogged Quinn’s current re-election bid against Republican Bruce Rauner.

Shaw was among seven former officials subpoenaed before the Legislative Audit Commission, which is reviewing a state audit outlining “pervasive” management and spending problems. County and federal authorities are also investigating.

But Shaw said the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative she helped design - it coordinated roughly 200 community groups and provided funding - used a wide approach, including a program for ex-offenders.

“The focus has been on the relatively few organizations that had problems,” she said. “People say we have to get to the bottom of the NRI program. I say we have to get the middle and the top and look at the excellent work that was done.”

Shaw, who retired in 2012, was the first to testify in two days of hearings that come weeks before the November election. Quinn is seeking a second full term in one of the nation’s most competitive gubernatorial contests. Rauner, a businessman, has focused heavily on problems in the initiative.

Republicans called the approximately $55 million program a political slush fund meant to secure votes in a race where Quinn narrowly defeated state Sen. Bill Brady. Quinn dismissed the notion and said he moved to correct problems, including abolishing the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, that oversaw the program.

Still, Republicans raised the issue Wednesday, pointing to 2010 emails from Quinn’s then-chief aide Jack Lavin to campaign officials about reaching out to African-American voters and highlighted a line saying the initiative could help the campaign “on the jobs and anti-violence messages.” The email was among thousands of documents the bipartisan commission received after issuing subpoenas.

Quinn campaign spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said the emails were “not government conversations.” The one from Lavin’s came from his personal address and was sent on a Sunday. She added the campaign would “want to promote” what Quinn was doing to fight violence, as it would other parts of his record. Lavin was expected to testify Thursday.

Shaw said the governor’s office didn’t influence where funding went, saying the first time she spoke to Quinn about the initiative was at the 2010 news conference when it was announced.

“The governor’s office never told us who to give the money to, what communities to go in, what agencies should get that money,” she said. “The elections did not play in role in where that money went.”

State Auditor General William Holland, who said the program was hastily implemented, disagreed with Shaw over parts of the program, including funding and missing paperwork. His February audit questioned expenditures. Members of the commission - which approves audits - said calling former officials would help answer questions.

Critics also questioned Chicago aldermen’s role in the program. Shaw said aldermen in areas plagued by violence and poverty were asked only for recommendations.

Former Quinn adviser Billy Ocasio told commission members he had little to do with the initiative. Former budget aide Malcolm Weems said there wasn’t pressure to fund the program ahead of the 2010 election. Former Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity director Warren Ribley addressed how federal disaster relief funding factored into the program, saying it was set aside to assist community development.

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Follow Sophia Tareen at https://twitter.com/sophiatareen .

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