A long-delayed computer tampering trial could dredge up the connections two of President Barack Obama's top political allies have to a now-defunct Chicago nonprofit investigated for potential fraud.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan was once a major proponent of the now-defunct Save-a-Life Foundation during his time as head of Chicago Public Schools. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Education Secretary Arne Duncan were once huge proponents of the Save-a-Life Foundation, which taught first aid skills to schoolchildren.
Save-A-Life received $9 million in state and federal grants from its founding in 1993 to when it folded in 2009, amid scrutiny over how the organization was spending its money. Political support evaporated from Duncan, Durbin and several other politicians from both parties who had previously secured or advocated for the grants and publicly praised Save-a-Life and its founder, Carol Spizzirri.
Based on news reports from Illinois, Spizzirri still has not fully accounted for much of the taxpayer money given to her organization. Duncan — who as the head of Chicago Public Schools lavished praise on Spizzirri and Save-a-Life — later said it "doesn't seem likely" the group served as many schoolchildren as it claimed.
Moreover, Spizzirri's credentials have also been widely questioned, including her claim to have been a registered nurse and about the circumstances of her daughter's death, which was the narrative used to promote the nonprofit.
The computer tampering charge originated in 2006, when Spizzirri filed a criminal complaint against former employee Annabel Melongo.
Melongo, in turn, is suing Cook County officials for wrongful prosecution and has alleged corruption in a civil complaint that was amended on June 5, citing Spizzirri's political connections.
“By way of example, United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was a prominent supporter of SALF when he was the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools," the Melongo civil complaint says. “Dick Durbin, one of the highest ranking senators in the United States Senate was one of SALF’s strongest supporters. Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky sponsored a Congressional Budget earmark for SALF."
"Former U.S. Senator Republican Norm Coleman sponsored a bill that would have awarded SALF millions if it had passed, and in 2006 the U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted the Community Response Systems Initiative Resolution, committing their support to SALF,” the complaint continues.
'It Could Be That Certain People Don't Want to Be Embarassed'
The Illinois attorney general's office has said that it is investigating Save-a-Life and how the tax dollars were spent, but Melongo attorney Jennifer Bonjean is skeptical.
She said there's been no progress to show that anything has been found — and believes that may be to protect high-ranking public officials from embarrassment.
“It could be a range of explanations as to why they're not proceeding more aggressively,” Bonjean told TheBlaze. “It could be that certain people don't want to be embarrassed for supporting a nefarious organization. We don't know until there is an investigation.”
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) advocated for the Save-a-Life Foundation before it folded. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Save-a-Life's stated mission was to provide first aid training to Chicago Public Schools students and personnel, but the organization allegedly did not follow through on administering the training it received the grants for.
“The public corruption unit of Cook County should be doing its job, not going after whistleblowers and scapegoats,” Bonjean said.
Illinois state Sen. Tim Bivins, the Republican whip, has pushed for a more aggressive state investigation into the organization.
“I would imagine Melongo's attorney would make SALF the issue and challenge Spizzirri's credibility,” Bivins told TheBlaze. “The attorney general has been unresponsive since they claimed to be investigating SALF. I might add the AG office when it comes to corruption is MIA.”
The Illinois attorney general's office did not respond to phone and email inquiries from TheBlaze, though has said in other news reports that it could not comment on an ongoing investigation.
The State Supreme Court Steps In
There are three separate cases involving Melongo: the criminal charge for computer tampering; a criminal eavesdropping charge that the Illinois Supreme Court struck down in March, but which originated after Melongo recorded a conversation with a court reporter; and Melongo's civil complaint against Cook County officials for wrongful prosecution in the eavesdropping case.
The 2008 grand jury indictment against Melongo says that in August 2006 she “accessed [a] Save-A-Life Foundation, Inc. computer data server, located in Schiller Park, Ill. and permanently deleted, removed and altered hundreds of computer files critical to Save-A-Life Foundation's operations. These acts were done without the authorization, knowledge or consent of the computer's owner.”
The trial was set to begin in late June, until state prosecutors asked for a delay. It's been rescheduled for July 28.
Melongo contends that her initial Oct. 31, 2006 computer tampering arrest resulted after Spizzirri became aware that Save-a-Life's finances would be scrutinized. Melongo says in her civil complaint that Spizzirri falsely accused her of deleting financial documents from computers.
Spizzirri, who has an unlisted phone number, reportedly lives in California and is expected to return to testify in the case.
The Cook County State's Attorney's Office, which is prosecuting the case against Melongo, declined to comment on the case to TheBlaze because the trial is pending.
The eavesdropping charge stemmed from Melongo recording a conversation she had with a court reporter, in violation of the state's two-party consent law. After she posted the audio of the recording on her website, IllinoisCorruption.net, she was arrested for violating the state's eavesdropping law.
Melongo gained statewide prominence for being the key figure in the Illinois Supreme Court case that struck down the state's eavesdropping law in March — which only came after she was incarcerated at the Cook County Jail for 20 months and spent another six months in house arrest.
“I do find it fascinating that Melongo, who was seemingly buried in the Cook County judicial system and jail, held on a bond higher than some charged with murder, became one of two cases that the Illinois Supreme Court used to rule the state's eavesdropping law unconstitutional,” Bivins said.
While the state's high court eliminated that charge, the original computer tampering case has continued.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave out $3.3 million in grants to the Save-A-Life Foundation. The remaining grants were from Illinois state agencies from 1993 until Save-a-Life's collapse in in 2009. After this, Spizzirri reportedly moved to San Marcos, California.
By November 2006, Chicago's WLS-TV aired a report that questioned how many schoolchildren actually received first aid training, and stated that Spizzirri's claims of being a registered nurse were not true.
The WLS report also cast doubt on Spizzirri's story of how her daughter died, which she had used to promote the organization. That news story quoted Duncan saying it "doesn't seem likely" that Save-a-Life trained the 67,000 students it claimed after getting $50,000 over the previous two years.
Over time, several other local media outlets raised questions on how the organization was spending its money and on the credentials of Spizzirri.
In 1996, Durbin said, "Carol Spizzirri's courage and efforts have made Illinois, and the nation, a safer place." He then wrote a letter on March 31, 1999 to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), then-chairman of a Senate subcommittee, asking for $1 million in federal funding for Save-a-Life.
Durbin's office did not respond to phone and email requests for comment.
In a Sept. 2, 2006 press release from Save-a-Life, then-Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan was quoted calling Carol Spizzirri “one of my heroes” and praising "the skills SALF is teaching the students of Chicago schools.” Save-a-Life gave Duncan his second “sponsorship award” for his “faithful support;” Duncan even appeared as an animated character in a promotional video for the organization.
A Department of Education representative did not return a request for comment from TheBlaze.
In a more remote connection, a Feb. 27, 2006 Save-a-Life press release said that then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, along with other state lawmakers, was “always supportive.”
In June 2006, then-Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) introduced a $40 million Homeland Security appropriations bill for Save-a-Life, but the bill died before even reaching a committee vote.
The organization was also an issue in the 2010 campaign of Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who faced questions for reportedly helping secure $1.5 million for the organization in 2004 and 2005. A Shimkus spokesman did not respond to request for comment.
Breitbart News reported that Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), mentioned in the civil complaint, actually proposed an earmark in a House bill for the fiscal year 2009 budget, well after the news reporting about the organizations.
Shakowky's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Bloggers and activists brought Save-a-Life's problems to the public's attention before it reached the Chicago news media.
In 2009, Save-a-Life dropped a defamation lawsuit against Peter Heimlich, who runs the website MediFraud; Dr. Robert Baratz, president of the National Council Against Health Fraud; and Cincinnatti blogger Jason Haap.
“The American public owes considerable gratitude to Annabel Melongo and her attorneys for their pursuit of justice and for her astonishing valor and determination,” Heimlich told TheBlaze. “In the face of overwhelming odds and with no financial resources, for the past eight years she has tirelessly challenged a powerful, abusive criminal justice system and brought to light crucial information about the Save-A-Life Foundation scandal.”
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