CHICAGO – Gov. Pat Quinn’s office said Saturday it is launching an internal review after a published report that a worker hired to oversee millions of dollars in the governor’s anti-violence program had a prior conviction for a financial crime.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported Friday that it obtained court records showing Benton Cook III pleaded guilty in 1999 to writing more than $3,700 in bad checks. Cook, the husband of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, was hired by a not-for-profit group called Chicago Area Project to work on the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, which Quinn started in 2010 to help stem city violence and eventually shut down.
The Cook County state’s attorney’s office and the U.S. Justice Department are already examining the program, which a state audit found had numerous problems from mismanagement to questions about expenditures. The scrutiny comes at a bad time for the Democratic governor, who is up for re-election in November in one of the most hotly contested gubernatorial races in the country. Republican state lawmakers have said the program amounted to a political slush fund fed by tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.
Following the new revelation by the newspaper, Quinn’s office promised an internal review into Chicago Area Project’s various grants with the state, which amounted to $22 million in 2009 and 2010, according to the Sun-Times. The organization has worked with the state for decades.
“We’re troubled by the fact that Mr. Cook was even on the payroll at this organization, and there are serious questions that need to be answered,” spokeswoman Brooke Anderson wrote in an email. “We’ve launched an internal review into existing grants to this organization. The whole issue needs to be thoroughly examined. We have zero tolerance for mismanagement at any state agency.”
On Friday, the governor made the rounds at Chicago television stations to defend his actions and contend he swiftly corrected problems with the anti-violence program.
The Sun-Times reported said Chicago Area Project spent $146,401 over two years on Cook’s salary and benefits for his work as a Neighborhood Recovery Initiative coordinator in charge of subcontractors and responsible for certifying how grant money was spent.
Cook did not respond to questions from the newspaper.
The Chicago Area Project would not say whether it knew about Cook’s felony conviction in Tennessee, which was for writing two bad checks to a man who imported and sold artifacts from Africa.
“There was nothing revealed during the application and interview process that would have barred Dr. Cook from working on the initiative,” the spokesman, John Holden, told the newspaper. “CAP completes thorough criminal background checks for employees whose responsibilities may bring them into direct contact with children but not for employees whose positions are administrative.”