Ald. Graham questioned over anti-violence grants

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Several candidates challenging Ald. Deborah Graham in the 29th Ward and representatives from some Austin-area nonprofits want nearly $400,000 in state anti-violence grants taken from organizations with ties to the alderman.

Standing on the steps outside Austin Town Hall Tuesday, five of the seven candidates running against the alderman lashed out at Graham for her role in dispersing the money – a process candidate Roman Morrow called “cronyism at its best.”

“When you try to unify this community, you need to open the process to all, not just to some,” Morrow said. “We need to have a fair process.”

“No more poli-tricks,” candidate Beverly Rogers repeated to about a dozen reporters and Graham staffers recording the proceedings on cell phones. “We want answers.”

With Tuesday’s election fast approaching, competitors have joined forces against incumbent Graham for her role in the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, a state program to fund anti-violence efforts in 23 city and suburban communities.

Austin organizations are receiving about $1.2 million for programs for kids, parents and ex-offenders – money that critics say was unfairly given to the alderman’s pastor and a political ally.

Graham maintains she played no role in deciding who would receive the grant money, a statement echoed by Andre Hines, CEO of Circle Family HealthCare Network, the nonprofit agency that’s overseeing the distribution of the grant money.

“It’s just desperate politics,” Graham said of her competitors. “This is their tactic to try to ruin my reputation.”

Since the grant recipients were announced last month, critics have questioned one $290,000 grant, part of which was given to Kingdom Community, a nonprofit led by Graham’s pastor, Rev. John Abercrombie; and a second $100,000 grant shared by Westside Health Authority and the Learning Network Center, a school headed by Luther Syas, who critics say circulated aldermanic petitions for Graham.

Graham acknowledges she was involved in the selection of Circle Family Healthcare Network as the lead agency for the program but says her involvement stopped there.

Instead of accepting requests for proposals, Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration asked aldermen to recommend lead agencies to spearhead the distribution process. Those lead agencies are deciding how the money should be doled out to other groups.

Graham says she suggested three “well-known community based organizations” for the role: Circle Family HealthCare Network, Bethel New Life and Westside Health Authority.

Circle Family HealthCare was chosen, Graham said, and it was that organization that decided Kingdom Community and the Learning Network Center should get the money.

Hines said her organization gathered people from local nonprofits to rate the grant applications – including representatives from eventual grantees Westside Health Authority and Kingdom Inc., though those representatives did not vote for grants in categories in which they were seeking awards, she said.

Hines said Circle did not invite members onto the committee but publicized meetings for anyone to attend. Twenty-two people rated the grant applications at a Dec. 9 meeting, she said.

“Nobody from any alderman’s office ever attended a meeting,” Hines said. “We did invite them, because the governor’s office said they wanted us to involve the aldermen … (but) no representatives ever showed up. I thought that was strange, but now I think it’s a blessing.”

Graham – who faces seven challengers next week in her first election since Mayor Daley appointed her last year – said it’s unrealistic to think an alderman wouldn’t have ties to people who are active in the community.

“I know everyone that received money,” Graham said. “I’ve lived in this community all my life. If you’re going to say you can’t know anyone in the community, that’s a bad thing.”

That hasn’t stopped Austin-area nonprofits that didn’t receive the funding – and didn’t know it existed until it was already claimed – from feeling excluded.

“If you don’t know who’s who, or if you ain’t in the clique, you can’t get a dime,” said Linda Barker, founder and CEO of Sista’s of the Hood, an organization that has worked with ex-offenders, seniors and the homeless. “I got ex-offenders sitting back at home because I can’t get them bus cards.”

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