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Complaint Filed Over State Employees At PUSH Meeting, Jim Dey | Champaign News-Gazette

August 25, 2012, page A-6

A March meeting in Chicago that featured the Rev. Jesse Jackson and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and required the attendance of more than 70 state employees is the subject of an ethics complaint filed with the state’s Office of the Executive Inspector General.

The meeting — some call it a political pep rally, while others say it was more innocent — was the subject of a June 30 column that raised questions about the propriety of the presence of state workers at the gathering. Now state Rep. David Harris, a Republican from Arlington Heights, says he wants state investigators to take a look at what happened and determine its propriety.

“The more I looked at it … I said, ‘This just doesn’t look right to me,’” said Harris, who filed his complaint last week.

Ricardo Meza, the executive inspector general, acknowledged receipt of Harris’ complaint.

“We will review the information and determine what course of action, if any, should be taken. We may open an investigation or refer this matter to another agency or law enforcement authority for appropriate action,” Meza wrote.

Harris said he is concerned for a variety of reasons about state employees being required to attend an Operation PUSH meeting where Pelosi, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, endorsed the re-election campaign of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., the son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

“We need to operate so that taxpayers know their dollars are being used properly,” Harris said. “If there’s even a hint of political activity involved, it’s inappropriate.”

Illinois Student Assistance Commission Executive Director Eric Zarnikow, chief legal counsel Annie Pike and spokesman John Samuels each declined to respond to telephone inquiries from The News-Gazette.

But in the June column, Samuels said that state employees attended because they were to be recognized for their work. The agency’s Outreach Corps is a federally funded program whose employees identify and work with aspiring college students who need encouragement and assistance.

Samuels also denied any state funds were expended because he said the corps is a federally funded program and said the gathering was not a political event.

However, agency bigwigs, including Zarnikow, who is a state employee, were among those on hand for the event held on a Saturday in Chicago.

Corps employees from all over the state were directed to attend. Several were required to drive hundreds of miles and stay in a hotel so they could be present. One employee, a Granite City resident, drove nearly 600 miles.

One document obtained under the state’s Freedom of Information Act identified 14 employees who drove a combined 4,735 miles to attend. They were reimbursed $3,549 for mileage, lodging and meals.

Although state officials have denied any political overtones to the gathering, one corps member who resigned in disgust after the event has signed a sworn affidavit providing details of what she described as a political rally.

Marcy Bailey, a 22-year-old resident of Xenia in Clay County, said she was among those required to attend and traveled 500 miles round-trip with a co-worker.

“I did not feel comfortable going, but my supervisors told me that I did have to go,” she said in her Aug. 9 affidavit.

Bailey said that when she and co-workers arrived at Operation PUSH headquarters, they were directed to stand in a side hallway outside a room where the Rev. Jackson was speaking to a group.

“We were staged to look like we were political supporters. In other words, we were used as props during a campaign season,” she said.

Later, during the actual PUSH rally, corps employees were recognized by the Rev. Jackson, and Bailey said they stood for a brief moment.

She said “this fit with what my supervisor had told me prior to the event:  that the purpose of the event was for ISAC Corps members to be seen by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi,” a key House member with strong influence over corps’ appropriations.

Bailey said a political rally followed in which Pelosi endorsed U.S. Rep.  Jackson Jr. for re-election and excoriated Republicans.

Later, Bailey said, the group met with the Rev. Jackson and that he “encouraged us to network students, hold rallies and organize ‘for student loan forgiveness.’”

“Rev. Jackson also told us not to worry about loading students up with too much college debt because Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats will eventually forgive all student loan debt,” Bailey said, quoting Jackson as saying that “on the promise of debt forgiveness, ‘those people will continue to vote Democratic.’”

Bailey said she was so disturbed about being “effectively coerced into participating” that she decided to resign her position and “become a whistleblower.”

“I knew that what I had been ordered to do by my supervisors using taxpayer money was at the very least morally wrong,” she said.

A private investigation into the circumstances of the Operation PUSH meeting has been led by Adam Andrzejewski (pronounced Angie-F-Ski), who founded the government reform group For the Good of Illinois.

Andrzejewski, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for governor in 2010, said state officials have not been forthright from the start about what occurred, but that internal documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act have shed considerable light on the subject. He said it’s clear now that employees were ordered to attend the event and paid with taxpayer dollars for their time. Andrzejewski said the political nature of the event requires further examination, but he suggested that taxpayers’ funds were expended with no return to the taxpayers.

“Everyone who pays taxes in Illinois knows they’re being ripped off,” he said. “It’s time to stop this pattern of abuse of taxpayer money.”

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or 351-5369.

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