Chicago Sun-Times (Illinois) - by Dave McKinney & Chris Fusco
With its custom red paint job, on-board TV, public-address system, game consoles and sparkling chrome tire rims, the 2003 Hummer was no ordinary vehicle.
The $45,196 SUV was designed to deliver an eye-catching, AIDS-awareness message to people in poor African-American neighborhoods on behalf of the Illinois Department of Public Health, then headed by Dr. Eric E. Whitaker, one of President Barack Obama’s closest friends.
Soon, though, other AIDS activists began to question how the Chicago not-for-profit organization that used the decked-out Hummer to spread its message could afford to spend money on such a vehicle.
After first insisting otherwise, Whitaker aides ultimately concluded that the organization’s director had lied when he said he used his own money to buy the Hummer when, in fact, taxpayers had footed the bill, according to e-mails obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
Still, Whitaker’s agency allowed the group — called Working for Togetherness — to keep the Hummer and reimburse the state for only half its cost. The health department also let the organization continue to get state business, according to records that have since become part of a broader federal investigation, out of Springfield, into allegations of fraud involving state grants.
In 2004, Whitaker’s department and the Illinois Department of Human Services gave Working for Togetherness $150,000 to raise awareness about AIDS in African-American communities by driving around and providing HIV test kits and information.
The 2003 Hummer — which Working for Togetherness bought used in July 2004 — included elements of “‘Ghetto Fabulous’ and/or ‘Hip Hop Bling’” culture, including “game consoles, custom sound, television, DVD, public address, custom paints and tire rims, and other exterior and interior amenities” to “appeal to those at highest risk for HIV infection,” according to a memo from Whitaker’s e-mail inbox.
The SUV was so blinged-out that it drew other activists’ attention.
“It was reported to me that Clifford Armstead from Working for Togetherness was doing outreach in a new HUMMER vehicle. I want to know if any state funds were used to purchase this vehicle,” IDPH deputy director Tom Hughes e-mailed Whitaker and five others on Jan. 13, 2005, records show. “If this is true, it represents terrible judgment on his part. . . . If this hits the paper, we could all be in trouble.”
About an hour later, Doris Turner, chief of the department’s Center for Minority Health Services, responded that Armstead, who is now deceased, already told her he’d bought the Hummer with “funds from he and his wife’s personal accounts.
“His program budget and requests for reimbursement are closely monitored,” wrote Turner, who still works for the state and also is a city of Springfield alderman. “I can assure you that no funds from his projects within my office were used toward the purchase of the vehicle.”
At 1:13 p.m., Whitaker’s chief of staff, Quinshaunta Golden, wrote to her boss: “Shame on whoever thought the Armsteads would do something like this. . . . What will be said now that they are using their own personal vehicle to do outreach?”
But what eventually came out, records show, was that Armstead improperly used state grant money to buy the SUV. In an e-mail to Whitaker after that internal investigation, Turner admitted, “Working for Togetherness did not properly request the automobile purchase as a part of their budget process.”
Under the Illinois Grant Funds Recovery Act, Whitaker could have sought a $45,196 refund — the SUV’s purchase price. The law also would have allowed him to “remove the grantee from any of the grantor agency’s programs and forbid the grantee’s participation in any such future grant programs for a period not to exceed two years.”
Instead, the health department decided that Working for Togetherness should repay $22,500 of the grant money — roughly half the Hummer’s purchase price.
Whitaker — who hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing — said via e-mail that his department “acted swiftly” upon learning of the “unauthorized purchase” of the SUV and that, “throughout my tenure, we had management and monitoring procedures in place to safeguard taxpayer dollars.”
Marj Halperin, a Whitaker spokeswoman, noted that Whitaker’s staff also “informed the [state’s] executive inspector general” of the matter. She said health officials ultimately concluded that the “fancy car worked” in helping Working for Togetherness do HIV/AIDS outreach and that taxpayers would be left covering the cost of “a more conventional auto.”
Despite being misled about how the SUV originally was purchased, the health department resumed funding Working for Togetherness for its HIV-testing work, giving it $2,223 during the first half of 2007 under Whitaker. The group went on to get another $75,000 under Dr. Damon Arnold, Whitaker’s successor.
The organization also got $915,827 in AIDS-awareness money from the city of Chicago between 2005 and 2010. City officials had problems with the organization, too.
An investigation by the city inspector general’s office, which was wrapped up last year, concluded that Working for Togetherness had “submitted false documents . . . for the purposes of supporting its activities and obtaining continued funding. In addition, the IGO found evidence that an employee of the not-for-profit sold HIV test kits which CDPH [the Chicago Department of Public Health] supplied to the not-for-profit at no cost.”
Working for Togetherness has since gone out of business.
Federal authorities began seeking records about the group in 2009 as part of a larger investigation of grants and contracts awarded by the state’s health, commerce and prison departments, according to federal grand-jury subpoenas obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times. A story published Monday about that investigation is online at suntimes.com/news/watchdogs/.
Before then, Illinois Auditor General Bill Holland also had questioned grants overseen by Whitaker’s department. Surveying a group of organizations that included Working for Togetherness, Holland faulted the department for lacking “a consistent methodology for the review of grants and grant expenditures” and conducting “very few site visits” to determine if organizations were performing as required.
Under Whitaker, the agency agreed with Holland’s criticism and promised to implement a “department-wide grants-monitoring protocol.”
A spokeswoman for the agency says the department put in place “a new grant review and monitoring system in 2010,” including requiring grant recipients “to submit financial expense and program status reports on a quarterly basis throughout the life of the grant.”
As for the Hummer, the vehicle ended up being sold “for salvage” after it was “seriously damaged” in a crash in January 2009, shortly after Armstead had died at the age of 60, records show. It’s not clear who was driving the vehicle at the time of the wreck, nor is it clear what was done with the proceeds from the sale.