New fumble for governor’s million-dollar giveaway
Loop Lab School’s fire-alarm system, exit doors not up to code, city says
By Todd Lighty | Chicago Tribune reporter
1:14 AM CDT, September 4, 2008
Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s mysterious decision to give $1 million to a politically connected private school hit another glitch Wednesday when city officials said new elementary classrooms built with the money were not fit for students.
Hours after the Tribune broke the news to the governor, his administration indicated it was moving to recover the ill-fated million-dollar grant Blagojevich gave the school.
Inspectors visited the Loop Lab School after the Tribune reported that the school planned to reopen this month on the second floor of a downtown high-rise. They found the school’s fire alarm system was not up to standards, some classrooms were located too far from exits, exit doors did not meet code in the event of a fire and interior classrooms did not have natural light.
“Right now, it is not fit to be a school,” said Bill McCaffrey, spokesman for the city’s Department of Buildings.
The city’s findings add new intrigue to the controversy over how Blagojevich steered $1 million to the family-run school after a devastating 2006 fire destroyed the Pilgrim Baptist Church, where the school held classes. Among the nagging questions is why Blagojevich promised taxpayer money to the school and whether state officials properly monitored how the money was spent.
The misplaced grant has been embarrassing for Blagojevich and has provided fodder for critics who say the governor prizes publicity over substance.
The governor seemed surprised Wednesday by news of the building problems.
“Wow. I’m disappointed. I’ll look into it,” Blagojevich told a Tribune reporter. “I don’t know a lot about that, but thank you.”
Shortly after the governor’s comments, his administration indicated it was moving to recover the $1 million from the school. The state agency that has been informally reviewing the circumstances of the grant for months said that the school has until the end of the week to resolve nine “compliance issues” or the state will formally take steps to get its money back.
Multiple spokesmen for the administration refused to provide any details, saying the matter was still under review.
School executive Chandra Gill said the school was working with the city to correct the code issues, which she blamed on the building’s developer. Gill said she has been trying to respond to the state’s concerns, which range from details of the construction plan to providing evidence that there are students ready to attend the school.
“Loop Lab School is set up for long-term stability and not short-time show,” Gill said in a written response. “We need a much more positive attitude from the state for these students [and] not engaging in conflict theatrics.”
The Blagojevich administration, state lawmakers and independent auditors have for months been trying to untangle the governor’s 2006 campaign pledge to rebuild historic Pilgrim Baptist Church. Critics had complained that state money could not go to rebuild the church.
Blagojevich has said his intention was for the money to go to the church’s administrative offices but bureaucrats mistakenly awarded $1 million to Loop Lab School. The governor subsequently pledged a second million-dollar grant to the church.
But the founder of the 25-year-old school told the Tribune in July that Blagojevich had personally pledged to rebuild her school.
What effect this latest setback will have on the cash-strapped school reopening is unclear. The school owes unpaid employment taxes and condo fees, and needs money to buy desks, computers and books. According to its Web site, the school has started a campaign to raise $100,000.
Gill in the past has denied that political strings were pulled so the school could receive the money.
Still, hurdles had to be cleared. The school for the first time in its history registered as a charitable organization with the state, and the governor gave an unusually quick pardon to Gill, who was convicted by a jury in 2003 of felony battery for injuring a police officer. Both U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) and Rev. Jesse Jackson supported Gill’s request for a pardon.
The school used the $1 million to buy and renovate the second floor of an 18-story condominium office building at 318 W. Adams St., across the street from the Sears Tower.
Inspectors last fall ordered work to stop on the building after finding that no plans or permits had been submitted to the city, McCaffrey said. He said inspectors returned the day of the Tribune’s July story.
At the time the school bought its space, the building was owned by FBI mole John Thomas, a business associate of Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a Blagojevich fundraiser and friend convicted in June on federal corruption charges.
Thomas, who has since sold the building, said any code violations are the school’s problem.
“We built to their specifications,” he said. “If it’s wrong, it’s their fault.”
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