- Associated Press - Thursday, October 9, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) - The boundaries between state government and political campaigns came into question Thursday as state lawmakers grilled Gov. Pat Quinn’s ex-chief of staff during a hearing about a former anti-violence program that was troubled.

Republican lawmakers focused on former aide Jack Lavin’s email exchanges from 2010 to suggest Quinn used the $55 million Neighborhood Recovery Initiative for political gain that election year, a line of questioning one Democratic commission member deemed “a witch hunt.”

Problems with the anti-violence program have plagued Quinn’s current re-election bid against Republican Bruce Rauner, with the two-day hearing falling weeks before the Nov. 4 election. The Legislative Audit Commission subpoenaed seven former state officials and thousands of documents in their review of a state audit that earlier this year said the program was hastily implemented and found spending and management programs. Federal and county authorities also are investigating.

At the center of Republicans’ focus was an exchange in September 2010 - a month before Quinn publicly announced the program - where Lavin corresponded with campaign officials about efforts to court African-American voters. Lavin wrote that the initiative could help the campaign “on the jobs and anti-violence messages.”

Lavin, then the chief operating officer, told commission members he was informing campaign officials, a standard practice, but he didn’t do any other work on the campaign.

“Elections are about referendums on incumbents: What have they done? What have they accomplished? Have they shown leadership?” he said. “Campaigns are about messaging and educating various constituencies about the incumbent. On personal time, on my personal computer, I was helping educate the campaign about an accomplishment of the governor.”

But Republican state Rep. Ron Sandack of Downers Grove was skeptical of the timing. He noted another email from Lavin’s state email address urging staff to quickly pull together a program report. However, state Sen. Kwame Raoul of Chicago said the questions were “badgering” and a “witch hunt.”

Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, championed the anti-violence program in 2010. His former deputy chief of staff, Toni Irving, testified Thursday that a 13-year-old boy’s shooting death that summer in Chicago was one of the reasons for the program.

Commission members said they will continue to review the audit and accepting documents. They did not vote on the audit by the end of the hearing Thursday. Their next meeting is Nov. 19.

Critics have scrutinized the role of politics in the anti-violence program. Republicans claim Quinn used the program as a “slush fund” to secure votes ahead of the 2010 election in which he narrowly defeated Republican state Sen. Bill Brady. Quinn denies that.

His lieutenant governor running mate Paul Vallas said Thursday that testimony, which stretched nearly 12 hours Wednesday, has showed the program has “always been what the governor has always said it was.”

Lavin became Quinn’s chief of staff before he left state government in 2013 and became a lobbyist. Recently, his name has surfaced in relation to a federal lawsuit an anti-patronage attorney has filed regarding hiring practices at the state Department of Transportation. Quinn has said Lavin was among those who recommended hires. Lavin declined comment Thursday.

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

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Associated Press writer Kerry Lester contributed to this report.

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