Manager of troubled Illinois anti-violence program now running similar agency

May 7, 2014

(WBEZ/Tony Arnold)
Toni Irving, the head of Get In Chicago, announces the 11 winners of grant applications Wednesday to mentor and give therapy to Chicago youth at a new conference with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Irving had previously run a similar program for the State of Illinois that’s now under investigation.

UPDATED at 5:22 p.m.

The head of a troubled state-managed anti-violence agency is now running a similar public-private partnership in Chicago.

Get In Chicago is a $50 million initiative designed to award grants to community groups around Chicago working to reduce violence. On Wednesday, while at a news conference with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Get In Chicago announced 11 winners of grants totaling $1.9 million. Get In Chicago is a public-private partnership, funded by many of the area’s largest corporations and run by Toni Irving, who has experience managing a similar program meant to combat violence.

In 2010, Irving worked for Gov. Pat Quinn and helped develop what became known as the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative. That program is now the subject of multiple investigations by Illinois lawmakers, Cook County prosecutors and federal prosecutors.

An audit from February shows a long list of problems related to the management of the state money that funded the program. The audit found the state did not adequately monitor how the cash was being spent, and the money wasn’t going to the most violent neighborhoods. Illinois Republicans have criticized the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative as a slush fund designed to support groups that could’ve helped Gov. Pat Quinn win election during his heated 2010 campaign. Quinn has been dogged by reporters’ questions about the program in recent weeks, and says he ended the program after he saw some problems with it. That came after legislators raised questions about the program. Quinn initially designated nearly $45 million for the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative through a fund he controls. The program’s total initial budget was $55 million.

Last year, a press release announcing Irving as the new head of Get In Chicago touts Irving’s involvement with the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative as a reason why she’s qualified to lead Get In Chicago. She also served on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame, conducting research on crime, race and social policy.

Irving wouldn’t comment for this story Wednesday.

Thomas Wilson, the chairman of Northbrook-based Allstate Corporation, which is funding the anti-violence program, defends Irving. Wilson said there are many checks and balances in place to make sure the money from Get In Chicago is being well-spent.

“This is really a state of the art process in terms of awarding money to help at-risk youth and Toni designed that process, she’s run that process,” Wilson said. “I’m completely confident that will work well. And we’re a large donor, so I should be focused on it.”

Wilson said the money is going toward mentoring young people, engaging parents and therapy. He said the grant recipients have been thoroughly vetted and will have to commit to certain progress markers evaluated by the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab.

“We’re trying to do measurement-based social philanthropy as opposed to just funding good activity programs,” Wilson said.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, at a separate news conference Wednesday, was asked about the timing of Get In Chicago’s grant distribution - but not about scrutiny surrounding Irving. Emanuel said Get In Chicago is planning on raising $10 million for each of the next four years, which would go beyond his re-election campaign next year.

“If you’re doing it only one year and around the campaign season, I understand why people would get cynical,” Emanuel said. “But given that it’s also in the years that there is no campaign, but it’s about safety, I would say then look at the consistency over the four year time.”

Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold

Clarification: Get In Chicago is a non-profit public-private partnership, not an agency of the City of Chicago.