Sen. Donne Trotter tried to derail state from recouping grant money
BY DAVE MCKINNEY AND CASEY TONER Staff Reporters December 20, 2012 2:38AM
State Sen. Donne Trotter speaks before Democratic committeemen slate a candidate for the 2nd Congressional District election at South Suburban College in South Holland, Ill., on Saturday, December 15, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 21, 2013 2:38PM
SPRINGFIELD — State Sen. Donne Trotter, the 2nd Congressional District candidate facing a felony gun charge, tried to thwart state efforts in 2010 to recoup a $1.25 million state grant after a now-indicted ex-south suburban police chief allegedly was caught skimming the public funds to pay herself rent and to hire her brother.
The case in question surrounds job-training money Trotter helped arrange as a top Senate budget negotiator to We Are Our Brother’s Keeper, a nonprofit organization once run by former Country Club Hills Police Chief Regina Evans. She sought state help to fix up the historic New Regal Theater on the South Side, which had fallen into disrepair.
“I do hope you will assist Ms. Evans,” Trotter wrote in a March 2010 letter to the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, urging the state not to follow through on a threat to yank grant funding from her because of questionable spending. “I do believe that We Are Our Brother’s Keepers is a community necessity.”
Earlier this year, Evans and her husband, Ronald Evans, were indicted by a federal grand jury in Springfield and charged in a scheme to misappropriate more than half of the grant between February 2009 and June 2010. Her pretrial conference is set for Feb. 19 with the jury trial set for March 5.
Trotter has denied knowledge of any wrongdoing on the Evanses’ part when he wrote the letter on their behalf.
Regina Evans had told the state she would use the money during the theater rehab at 1645 E. 79th St. to train about 40 women and minorities for bricklaying and electrical careers, with help also available for completing GEDs.
The venture wound up failing, and the historic building went into foreclosure and has been sold at a sheriff’s sale. In July, a Cook County judge ordered that We Are Our Brother’s Keeper repay the state $917,194 in misspent grant funds.
Between January and early March 2010, state commerce officials repeatedly asked Evans to explain $96,000 in unauthorized rent payments to herself and her husband from the grant and the hiring of Regina Evans’ brother, among other things, according to documents obtained from the agency in an open-records request by the Chicago Sun-Times and the SouthtownStar.
The state gave Evans until March 5, 2010, to answer those questions or it threatened to initiate formal grant-recovery proceedings against her nonprofit.
The day before that deadline, Evans wrote to the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to defend the rent payments and her use of grant proceeds to hire her brother, Ricky McCoy, to find jobs for trainees involved in the theater renovation.
“He is very qualified and does an admirable job for the program and the people we serve,” she wrote.
On the next day, Trotter, then the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, wrote department Director Warren Ribley to encourage the state not to pull funding for We Are Our Brother’s Keeper.
The group, Trotter wrote, “is having a measurable positive impact throughout the community, and I am impressed with the foresight and insight that Ms. Evans has shown in creating a program with such depth.”
Trotter asked the agency to send “appropriate technical assistance” instead of withdrawing funding, citing Evans’ police background.
Ribley, now executive director of the Illinois Medical District, declined to be interviewed about Trotter’s letter, and a department spokeswoman did not respond to questions about whether Ribley or the agency ever informed Trotter before the letter why Evans and her nonprofit were being targeted.
By the time Trotter signed his letter, Evans and her husband were deep in legal troubles, facing multiple lawsuits and on the brink of bankruptcy, though both landed lucrative jobs in Country Club Hills, she as police chief, he as the inspector general tasked with investigating her department.
Trotter also had hosted a campaign fund-raiser at the theater that raised $4,500 in November 2009, he told the Sun-Times. Minutes from a We Are Our Brother’s Keeper meeting showed that Regina’s brother, Ricky McCoy, sold tickets to the event. McCoy also got a job working in Country Club Hills when his sister and brother-in-law were employed there.
“Miss Evans and her husband both came to my office and said they felt they were being harassed, that there was no merit to the issues that they’d brought up,” Trotter told the Sun-Times in an interview before his arrest earlier this month on a felony weapons charge for allegedly trying to take a handgun through a security checkpoint at O’Hare Airport.
“They had not shown me any documentation and had just asked whether I’d try to intervene and find out if there are problems, and if they were just technical ones,” Trotter said. “She seemed very sincere in wanting to do something positive in the community, not a for-profit venture, but one that was also giving back to the community and having this job-readiness program. It wasn’t just like, ‘Enrich me.’ ”
In 2010, Trotter sponsored a bill that would have included an additional $200,000 for We Are Our Brother’s Keeper’s “capital improvements,” but the money never was doled out.
After learning of her indictment, Trotter said his view of the Evanses shifted, though he still characterized them as “decent people.”
“I was surprised when I saw details of some of the things she’d done. I don’t know when she got off track. That wasn’t the track that they were on. I didn’t look at them as con people,” he said. “I thought they were — and still think they are — decent people, but somehow [they] have just gone someplace else, got in over their heads.”
On Saturday, Trotter was among 16 candidates interviewed by Democratic leaders to replace former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. But the state senator, like all of his rivals, failed to get slated by the group of South Side and south suburban committeeman.
The lack of consensus means an open primary for Democratic voters in the 2nd Congressional District on Feb. 26, the date of a special primary election. The general election for the congressional seat occurs April 9.
Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick