WASHINGTON — U.S. House candidate Tim Bagwell, a Democrat looking to unseat a longtime Illinois Republican congressman, will hold a press conference Wednesday at the Illinois State Capitol to ask that his opponent, Rep. John Shimkus, call for a federal investigation into the embattled Save-A-Life Foundation to determine if the federal funding it received was properly administered.
“The principal job of a U.S. representative is congressional oversight, not just handing out money and getting the picture taken with the recipients,” Bagwell said. “It’s evident that this hasn’t happened with SALF.”
SALF, which closed its doors in 2009, was a high-profile Illinois-based charity chartered to teach first aid and CPR to school children in Illinois and across the country. The organization, which received nearly $10 million in public funds – some of which Shimkus has taken credit for obtaining through an omnibus appropriations bill — was the subject of a critical news exposé in 2006 run by WLS-TV, Chicago’s ABC affiliate, which accused the organization’s founder of fraud and exaggerating the number of students it trained.
SALF’s federal funding came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which provided the organization more than $3 million over its lifespan – about half of which Shimkus obtained through government earmarks, according to a 2005 Edwardsville Intelligencer article. The congressman was photographed in 2004, presenting SALF’s founder Carol Spizzirri with an oversized check.
Blogger Lee Cary, who has been independently investigating the Save-A-Life Foundation and recently contacted Shimkus about the potential fund mismanagement, said the congressman failed to respond.
“If people came to me with allegations of misappropriated funds or credentials that were not quite right I would investigate,” Bagwell said. “I would initiate an inquiry of some kind.”
Shimkus’ press secretary Steve Tomaszewski said that the congressman was not made aware of any negative press surrounding the charity after the 2006 ABC exposé, but confirmed that he had received the recent correspondence from Cary. Tomaszewski released a brief statement in response to Bagwell’s call for an investigation, gently urging for the appropriate bodies to look into any wrongdoing.
“If improprieties have occurred with state or federal funds, the State’s Attorney or U.S. Attorney or others with the authority should investigate and prosecute if appropriate,” the statement reads.
A November 2004 press release from Shimkus’ office trumpets his support of $500,000 in federal appropriations earmarked for SALF — $25,000 of which went to opening a SALF branch office at Anderson Hospital in Southern Illinois. The Anderson Hospital SALF office was managed by then-hospital EMS coordinator Eric Brandmeyer, who was responsible for implementing SALF’s first aid training program to area school children within Anderson Hospital’s local EMS system — which encompasses a dozen small cities and villages.
Of the four city and village fire departments that could be reached for comment, three had never participated in training students through SALF and the one that had, Edwardsville, found virtually no records.
Edwardsville fire chief Rick Wells said that his department had ended its relationship with the charity by the end of 2007 and that existing files were scant. According to department records, only 19 training classes were ever administered through the Edwardsville Fire Department – all in 2007 — and none of the trainers were compensated by SALF. Wells said the training likely cost the city less than $30 total. Grant reports submitted by the charity to the CDC indicate that SALF had agreed to train 3,500 kids through their Anderson branch by May 31, 2005.
Anderson Hospital president and CEO Keith Page replied in an e-mail to Cary, the blogger, that the hospital had received educational and training materials from SALF, but not the $25,000 cash award. Page wrote that SALF reimbursed the hospital approximately $5,000 for a contracted educator for the program.
Bagwell said Shimkus’ lack of oversight into the organization’s handling of federal money was more indicative of negligence than corruption.
“It’s the culture of cozy politics in Illinois that leads you to extend money and funding without performing due diligence on an organization and the individual in that organization,” he said. “If you’re giving money to a private organization and seeking accolades and approval then you better do your due diligence and exercise oversight. Clearly he failed to do that.”
If Bagwell’s call for a federal investigation into the charity is heeded, it will coincide with a public investigation undertaken last month by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office. The Charitable Trust Bureau at Madigan’s office began looking into SALF’s improperly filed 2008-2009 tax forms earlier this year as a standard procedural matter but opened an investigation into the charity after receiving additional information in a complaint. Madigan’s office would not disclose any findings from its ongoing investigation.
Spizzirri, SALF’s founder, who misrepresented her daughter’s death in 1992 to garner political and media support for the organization and also lied about her own medical credentials, maintains ties to Illinois legislators, and both former and current public state officials.