CHICAGO – An attorney for Gov. Pat Quinn faced blistering questioning by legislators Friday on why the governor didn’t quickly fire the head of the state’s child welfare agency last year after a report of fraudulent billing under his watch.
At a hearing in Chicago, Rep. Jack Franks called it “cowardice” on the part of Quinn’s office to ask for Erwin McEwen’s resignation from his post as chief of the Department of Children and Family Services rather than fire him.
State inspectors had found that a friend of the former director collected millions of dollars for shoddy or nonexistent work.
“I can’t believe the cowardice,” Franks exclaimed in reaction to Quinn’s general counsel, John Schomberg, who had said that accepting a resignation instead of firing an employee can avoid a lawsuit.
“Let him sue,” Franks said, his voice rising. “Who cares? Do what’s right.”
The hearing before two Illinois House committees was prompted by an October report alleging lax oversight at DCFS. The state inspectors’ report said George E. Smith and his various organizations collected $18 million in state grants from 2008 through 2011.
Smith often rebuffed questions from employees at DCFS by saying he answered only to the director.
The Illinois Attorney General’s Office is working to recover some of the money collected by Smith, the contractor accused of submitting fake papers, forging people’s signatures, turning in fraudulent expense accounts and falsely claiming he was a psychiatrist.
“It’s a lot of money. We’re going to have trouble finding” enough assets, said Ann Spillane, chief of staff for Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Spillane said the matter has been given “a very high priority.” The case also has been referred to federal prosecutors.
McEwen declined to comment to The Associated Press on Friday when reached by phone at his home.
Schomberg said at the hearing that McEwen stayed on for a month after the governor requested his resignation because he had “too much institutional knowledge” and was needed for a “thoughtful transition” at the department.
Franks asked Schomberg in jest whether the transition was to train the next leadership team on “how to loot.”
Franks pointed to a glowing news release announcing that McEwen was “leaving the agency to pursue new opportunities” as possible evidence of an attempt to cover up the situation.
“This government was deceitful to the public,” Franks said.
Schomberg said state law barred the governor from disclosing anything about the inspectors’ work, which hadn’t yet been publicly released.
“Isn’t it possible to be honest without violating the ethics act?” Franks asked, drawing laughter at the hearing.