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The Questionable Line Items of Illinois’ COVID-19 Spending

We thought you should know more about how your taxpayer dollars are being spent. Use our look-up tool to examine COVID-19 spending in Illinois.

Thoka Maer for ProPublica

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Last week, we published Grenades, Bread and Body Bags: How Illinois Has Spent $1.6 Billion in Response to COVID-19 So Far, a story and look-up tool that examines Illinois’ COVID-19 related spending.

Given that we are in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic and billions of dollars in federal aid are being thrown at response and recovery efforts in Illinois, we thought you should know more about how your taxpayer dollars are being spent. Plus, we figured there’d probably be a few interesting needles in the haystack.

To accomplish this, ProPublica reporter Jodi Cohen, Chicago Tribune reporter Jennifer Smith Richards and I combed through more than 20,000 expense items from the state comptroller. We found that while the vast majority of expenses were indeed obviously linked to the pandemic — items like face masks, school meals, business grants and COVID-19 testing services — some spending included unusual purchases like crowd control grenades and firearms training simulators.

Our analysis also showed a broader pattern in the state’s response to the pandemic. In the spring, the largest contracts went to vendors for ventilators and millions of pieces of protective equipment amid a severe global supply shortage. By the summer, payments had shifted toward helping schools, businesses, and child care and health care providers. Spending continues as the state faces another wave of the virus.

There were also a number of expenses that made us pause and think: “Huh! That’s interesting.” The Department of Corrections spent nearly $1 million on bread. In seeking an explanation, we learned that the inmate-staffed central bakery was shut down for safety reasons, prompting the state to purchase bread as an alternative. Then there were payments to lease out entire hotels for people who needed somewhere to temporarily quarantine. We found that some of these facilities sat empty for almost two months.

The most questionable line items we came across were a series of purchases made by the Illinois State Police. The agency had submitted tear gas grenades, flash-bangs and other crowd control weapons as COVID-19 expenses, telling us they needed to stock up in case hospitals were overrun by people seeking COVID-19 treatment.

After we asked the governor’s Office of Management and Budget about these expenses, a spokeswoman informed us that the office had rejected the state police’s purchases, concluding that the spending might not be directly related to COVID-19.

Our story also includes a look-up tool that lets readers like you put on an investigative hat and see how your money has been spent. We’ve already gotten some interesting responses: Geoff Hing, a reporter with APM Reports, noticed millions spent on postage and printing related to increased unemployment claims. Another reader pointed out that the Department of Revenue paid $6.75 per gallon for 100 gallons of distilled water, when those regularly go for $1 at a supermarket.

What can you find? Try our look-up tool and let us know what you come across by emailing us directly at [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected].

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Portrait of Ash Ngu

Ash Ngu

Ash Ngu is a journalist, designer and developer with ProPublica Illinois.

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