On a chilly afternoon this fall, teenagers across Chicago's South Side were busy at work, earning $8.75 an hour to hand out fliers with a message of non-violence.
"Our message that we're giving out today is about being healthy," said 18-year-old Lucia Eloisa. "One of the key pointers is about taking time to reflect and seek inner peace."
Eloisa's part-time job was paid for by an ambitious state-funded program to keep at-risk teenagers out of trouble. It pumped nearly $55 million into Chicago's toughest neighborhoods and three of its suburbs to stem unrelenting gang violence.
A four-month CNN investigation found that not only did the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative (NRI) pay teens to hand out fliers promoting inner peace, it also paid these at-risk teens to take field trips to museums, march in a parade with the governor, and even attend a yoga class to learn how to handle stress.
Earlier this year, state legislators passed a resolution demanding the state conduct an audit on the program. That audit is under way.
Supporters say the program kept kids off the streets of Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods and helped expose inner city youth to a broader culture, as well as cultivate future leaders.
But critics wonder if it was just a waste of taxpayers' money, considering that the city's murder rate has risen since the program began two years ago.
Or worse: was it just an effort to buy votes ahead of a tight race for governor?
Stemming crime or gaining votes?
Pat Quinn became Illinois' governor in 2009 in the wake of a corruption scandal that took down his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich. After serving out the rest of Blagojevich's term, the former lieutenant governor narrowly won the Democratic primary to vie for a full term in 2010.
That fall, Quinn faced a tough challenge against his Republican opponent to retain the governor's seat.
In October 2010 -- less than a month before the gubernatorial election -- Quinn announced his Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, which he said would "take on the root causes of violence" in Chicago and across Illinois by creating "about 3,000 part time and permanent jobs for young people so they have a positive way to go."
"And we mean business," Quinn said at the October 6 news conference. "We really understand how important this is."
Quinn's political opponents have questioned the timing of his announcement.
"I mean, we're in a budget crisis," said Illinois state Sen. Matt Murphy, spokesman for the Republican state appropriations committee. "We were back then. We have since been in a violence crisis in Chicago, and you look at this, and you say for political purposes, you're taking precious and limited taxpayer dollars and spending them on political purposes rather than solving the violence problem in the city of Chicago. And it was wrong."
Murphy believes that Quinn's real motivation for implementing the program was to secure votes in Chicago's heavily Democratic districts on the South Side.
Just days before Quinn publicly unveiled the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, the state agency that would oversee the program expressed concern about how it would be funded.
"There was discussion regarding the payment for this initiative, as the state is already late on payment of existing bills to community-based agencies with state contracts," according to the minutes of the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority's September 30, 2010, meeting, which were obtained by CNN.
At the meeting, an official from Quinn's administration assured state officials that the program would have the necessary funds.
"The governor's office is committed to allocating some of the funds for this initiative immediately and will allocate the rest after the election," the official said, according to the meeting's minutes.
Murphy called that statement a "smoking gun." It shows, according to Murphy, "that motivation for this program was to get money out in politically important neighborhoods for Gov. Quinn before ... a tight election."
Murphy and other Republican legislators point to the fact that most of the program's funding went to black neighborhoods in Chicago that were ultimately critical to Quinn's election.
"Why on earth would anybody in a government position talk about the timing of an election with the release of public taxpayer dollars if it wasn't for the political advancement of their boss?" Murphy said, referring to the Quinn staffer's comments.
"I wouldn't say it's buying votes," said Democratic state Rep. Thaddeus Jones, when asked about the timing of the governor's announcement of the anti-violence program. "I could see (it as) currying favor."
Quinn ended up winning the 2010 election by less than one percentage point, largely due to the turnout of the black vote in Chicago.
'A lot of baloney'
The Illinois governor strongly denied there was any political motivation behind the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
"That's a lot of baloney, and you know they know that," Quinn told CNN last month. "As a matter of fact, the people making those charges were all running against me. It's all politics."
Quinn insisted that the initiative was a direct response to the incessant violence that gripped Chicago during the summer of 2010.
"The bottom line is, I went to the funerals of three police officers in 2010," Quinn said. "I spoke at all three of those funerals. Gang-bangers had shot down those officers."
Quinn said he formed an anti-violence commission -- which included Chicago residents who had lost loved ones to violence -- that made recommendations that led to the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
"That commission recommended having youth programs, opportunities for mentorship and jobs to keep young people away from the gangs," Quinn said. "I followed their advice and we've followed that all the way through. And this is not political. It's designed to help everyday people stay away from violence, protect their safety, make sure their young children, especially in poor neighborhoods that have no jobs, have a better way."
But records obtained by CNN show the NRI program was under way before those recommendations were released.
After a series of open meetings in Chicago and other areas, the commission issued a list of recommendations on September 13, 2010, according to the commission's chair, Teresa Garate. Those recommendations -- like the program itself -- focused on four areas: counseling and alternative education, prisoner re-entry, job creation and community development.
But a week before those recommendations were issued, Chicago aldermen began receiving a letter from the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority's (IVPA) director about the NRI program. The September 7, 2010, letter stated that "the initiative is on a very fast track, so we are requesting that you respond immediately to this request." The IVPA is the state agency that oversaw the NRI.
When asked about those records, a Quinn spokesman confirmed that the program was in the works before the commission issued its recommendations.
What the program actually did
Politically motivated or not, it's hard to argue that the nearly $55 million spent on the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative helped stem violence in Chicago. Two years after the program was implemented, there have been 476 murders in the city, a nearly 20 percent increase over 2011.
The governor defended the program, saying that he had to do something to address the situation.
"You take it one year at a time and you try to evaluate the programs, and find out what is working and what isn't working so well," Quinn told CNN. "And you focus on the things that work well. But you don't just say we're not going to do anything."