CHICAGO (CNN) -- 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."
The program was set up so quickly that there was no formal way to measure its results, according to hundreds of documents reviewed by CNN and interviews with those who participated in the program.
Records provided to CNN show that $54.5 million was spent on the NRI program, mostly through the governor's discretionary fund, which doesn't require legislative approval.
The only data on the program's accomplishments come directly from the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority. The NRI states that it created more than 3,484 jobs, provided counseling for more than 3,100 children, and helped 1,175 ex-cons.
The NRI's self-reported results are being examined by researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago. No formal report has been issued.
CNN reviewed hundreds of documents related to the program and conducted dozens of interviews with program participants which show how some of the money was spent:
NRI participants were paid $8.75 an hour, first to receive mentoring from adults, and then go out to pitch positive messages and hand out fliers in their neighborhoods.
Lazaro Vasquez, 18, said although he couldn't explain how the message in the fliers he was handing out would help stop violence, he supported the program.
"I just know that I'm trying to do my best that I can (to) pitch that message to youth, and let them know that we're trying to help the community," he said.
In another instance, students earned $8.75 an hour to visit the DuSable Museum of African American History and to the National Museum of Mexican Art.
"It was an effort to expose the students to a broader perspective on the cultures in their neighborhood and provoke some discussion," explained Dan Valliere, executive director of Chicago Commons, one of the lead agencies under the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
"The goal is to shift youth attitudes and help them develop a perspective on how they can be leaders and impact their neighborhood in a positive way. Over time, this kind of work can help reduce violence. There is research and experience to back that up."
Students were also paid to attend a yoga class as part of the program's effort "to point them out of their comfort zone ... think differently and become more a leader in their own neighborhood," Valliere explained.
The NRI also paid teens from the Better Boys Foundation to march in the 82nd Annual Bud Billiken Parade on August 13, 2011, with Quinn, according to records and video of the parade.
"Their job was promoting positive messages, etc., which is what the parade is about," a spokesman for Quinn said.
An audit of one of the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative's lead groups -- The Woodlawn Organization -- uncovered a "lack of clear accounting and record keeping" and "questionable decisions." The group, which has a two-year contract, received $1.2 million before the state de-funded it.
According to the audit -- which is separate from the ongoing state audit of the entire NRI program -- The Woodlawn Organization used the money to buy $2,000 in American Express gift cards for two employees working for one of its subcontractors.
The two staff members "had to work far more hours over the course of the program than they were paid to do," said Joel Hamernick, director of the subcontractor, Sunshine Gospel Ministries.
Hamernick told CNN that his group got permission from The Woodlawn Organization "to make these two gift cards available to this staff in order to show our appreciation for their hard work."
Georgette Greenlee-Finney, the former executive director of The Woodlawn Organization, did not return repeated phone calls from CNN. James Taylor, attorney for The Woodlawn Organization, said the group would provide all documentation requested by the state for its audit of the NRI.
Illinois legislators, like Sen. Murphy, have been demanding specifics about whether the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative delivered on its promises.
"At first blush, this appears to have been a misuse of taxpayer dollars," Murphy said. "We've been asking for answers ... on where this money was spent, how it was spent. You know, this is state taxpayer money."
It's not only Republican legislators who have asked for more specifics about the NRI.
Rep. Jones sent a letter in August to the state agency overseeing the program asking for a "list of administration costs" associated with NRI and a list of groups that have submitted audits.
The letter was sent in August to Barbara Shaw, the former director of the Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, who has since retired from state government. Jones said he never received a response.
"There still needs to be some examination of where the money went," Jones said. "If the money didn't go to the anti-violence programs, I'm not going to let it rest on deaf ears."
Examples of the apparent misuse of the program's money don't surprise Mike Shaver, whose organization, Chicago Children's Home and Aid, received $2.1 million for its role as a lead agency for the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
He and others say the initiative was just too big, and providers were not equipped to evaluate which programs were working and which were not.
"We weren't able to get enough information about what was going on in our own program to understand whether we were having the desired impact," said Shaver.
Others involved with the Chicago anti-violence initiative underscored the successes of the program -- like keeping kids off the streets -- while acknowledging more needs to be done.
"We engage with the kids and things of that nature, do booster training and get them life skills and coping skills," said Lamont Coakley, an adult mentor. "It's just limited on the funds. If we can get funded to hire all the youth, then it would work.
"Because if we really look at it, when they're at their training, when they're at work, they're not shooting anyone."
Father Michael Pfleger, of the Church of St. Sabina -- another of the NRI's lead agencies -- said the program's overall success shouldn't just be measured by Chicago's crime rate.
"Let's not say because the NRI can't show evidence of crime being down that it's failed," Pfleger said. "No, I look at the NRI with the boots on the street and within the community that we're helping from getting worse."
That sentiment was echoed by the Illinois governor:
"It does work when you intervene, when you keep people on a positive path, doing good things for their community instead of getting involved with gang-bangers and drug dealers that afflict many communities, and use violence to kill children in particular," Quinn said.
"Most people who have looked at this issue, who are experts, say the best way to fight the violence is to have after-school programs for children who can get in trouble after school, have programs of mentoring so they have positive role models, have programs where they can have a job, even if it's just a part-time job, a seasonable job."
But Murphy said those temporary jobs are just "another way of providing welfare."
"You're not giving young people a chance to advance by giving them this flier-passing-out job," Murphy said. "You're not creating an environment where job growth that is lasting is going to take hold."
Today, the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative has been scaled back, with a much smaller budget of just $15 million. It's also being managed by a different state agency.
And the jobs? A spokeswoman for the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority said that's being reworked to put "youth in more traditional employment and mentoring situations."
-- CNN's Sara Anwar contributed to this report.
™ & © 2012 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.