Friday, November 18, 2011

Quinn took 4 months to remove child-welfare chief - Illinois

SPRINGFIELD | Gov. Pat Quinn took four months to remove his director of child welfare after being told state inspectors believed the man had turned a blind eye while a friend ripped off state government, and Quinn kept quiet about problems at the agency even after conducting his own review.

Quinn aides said the governor acted as quickly as possible to determine the truth and then make changes without causing major disruptions at the Department of Children and Family Services. They say state ethics laws barred him from revealing that inspectors were investigating then-Director Erwin McEwen, information that didn't become public until three weeks ago.

The Democratic governor has a long history of calling for more government openness and accountability, first as an outside activist and then as state treasurer and lieutenant governor. Legislators are questioning how he handled the McEwen case, and why it took him so long to remove McEwen.

Two Illinois House committees plan a joint hearing, said Rep. Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat and chairman of the House Human Services Committee.

"There are questions we would like to ask about the decision-making," Harris said Tuesday. "This merits a full discussion."

Rep. Jack Franks, chairman of the State Government Administration Committee, said he was troubled that Quinn did not remove McEwen far more quickly, particularly when the report said McEwen was no longer cooperating with investigators as required by law.

"The first day an employee of mine stopped cooperating would be his last day on the job," Franks said.

McEwen was accused of creating an atmosphere of lax oversight that allowed a friend to take millions of dollars from the state for shoddy or non-existent work. Inspectors recommended legal action against McEwen's friend, George Smith.

Quinn's office got the inspectors' preliminary report on May 25, aides said, and the governor ordered a review that was completed by Aug. 1. McEwen's resignation was announced nearly a month later, and he left the agency in late September.

His departure was portrayed as routine. Quinn said nothing about McEwen's mismanagement or Smith's potential fraud. That came to light when the inspector general's official report was released on Oct. 17.

Spokeswoman Brooke Anderson denied any contradiction between Quinn's calls for openness and his silence when removing McEwen. She said state law barred Quinn from disclosing anything about the inspectors' work, even his own internal review or what convinced him that McEwen had to go.

She said Quinn is satisfied with those restrictions on what he can reveal about his own administration.

"The current law strikes a fair balance between due process and transparency," Anderson said in an email.

The law cited by Quinn's office is part of the act setting up an ethics commission and detailing the duties of inspectors. The section on what information the commission can release says "all investigatory files and reports of the Office of an Executive Inspector General ... are confidential."

Quinn's position got some support Tuesday from author and attorney Scott Turow, the former chairman of the state's Executive Ethics Commission.

"As a matter of policy, I think the governor is probably doing the right thing in not releasing details until the disclosure procedure at the EEC has been complied with," Turow said in an email.

But other government watchdogs questioned Quinn's claim that a governor is legally barred from telling the public why he has removed an agency director.

"Once there's a termination, that cause should be public," said Brian Gladstein, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

McEwen did not return messages left at his home.

State inspectors report Smith billed several government agencies for work done by non-existent employees, submitted fake papers, forged people's signatures, turned in fraudulent expense accounts and falsely claimed he was a psychiatrist. They also found he administered psychotropic drugs to children without permission and without determining the proper dosages.

The report said Smith and his various organizations collected $18 million in state grants from 2008 through 2011. Smith often rebuffed questions from employees at the Department of Children and Family Services by saying he only answered to the director.

"Director McEwen created a situation that was ripe for a vendor such as Dr. Smith to enrich himself and inflate costs by billing for 'ghost' positions and billing various agencies for the same services," said the report, a result of an investigation by the DCFS inspector and the state's executive inspector general.

It's not clear whether any law enforcement agency is considering charges against Smith. The governor's spokeswoman wouldn't say whether Quinn thinks charges are warranted.

"That is for the proper authorities to determine," Anderson said.


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