Eyewitness News Investigation: Portrait of a Con

WTVO/WQRF EYEWITNESS NEWS INVESTIGATION -- The state gives millions of dollars to organizations looking to do good, but one case shows how easy the system can be exploited.

Hundreds of groups receive grants from the state each year. But, as the case of the Save a Life Foundation shows, there are huge holes when it comes to monitoring progress once a group has received the money.

Illinois State Senator Tim Bivins (R-Dixon) said he was shocked to learn how easy a group receiving state funding can get by without showing how the money was spent.

"It happens again and again with taxpayer dollars to programs that don't work and they can't account for the funds,” Bivins said.

For example, in 1994 Carol Spizzirri founded the Save a Life Foundation in honor of her late daughter who died in a car accident in Lake County.

The organization claimed to teach emergency first aid to students, skills Spizzirri said could have saved her daughter's life.

The foundation quickly became the belle of the ball for lawmakers, but after collecting more than $10 million in state and federal cash, Save a Life turned into a house of cards.

"They made a claim they had trained thousands and thousands of children,” Bivins said. “Well, we can't substantiate that that all of these children were trained.”

Later in 2006, an investigation by a Chicago television station would find its founder Carol Spizzirri falsified her degree and credentials as a registered nurse.

WCIA-3's investigation found supposed branch offices, including St. John’s Hospital, in Springfield, denying affiliations to the group.

And, the story of Spizzirri's daughter dying in a hit-and-run accident when first responders didn't know the techniques to save her life, turned out to be false.

According to a Lake County coroner's report, Spizzirri's daughter rolled her car over after being legally intoxicated and she didn't die on the scene, but a half-hour after arriving at St. Therese Hospital, in Waukegan.

"One story after another that doesn't check out,” Bivins said.

As a former sheriff and police investigator, Bivins became concerned with all the problems in the Save a Life story. He was even told the organization had a presence in his district.

"There are no recollections from anybody that this program ever existed or was ever in my hometown,” he said.

Illinois Senator Martin Sandoval (D-Cicero) was listed as a board member and secretary in the early 2000's for the program. Sandoval said Save a Life improperly listed him as an active board member. He said he only attended two meetings before deciding to walk away. He said the foundation had invited him to the board because he had his own personal tragedy. But Sandoval said he never felt comfortable with the organization.

“I felt they just wanted to use me as window dressing,” Sandoval said.

Sandoval wasn't alone. Seven years of annual reports for Save a Life featured almost 200 pictures of elected officials and professionals.

Bivins said his colleagues are embarrassed.

"People I've talked to about it, or attempted to talk to, just don't want to talk about it,” he said.

People like Illinois House Deputy Majority Leader Lou Lang (D-Skokie), who authored a resolution praising the organization and Spizzirri in 2003. He declined repeated requests for comment.

State Representative Elgie Sims, Jr. (D) lobbied for Save a Life before being elected to the General Assembly. He declined an on-camera interview, but said Spizzirri ran the organization with impunity.

“I believed the fact sheets Spizzirri gave me,” Sims said.

Another former lobbyist, Bennett Krause, had a similar opinion. He said he only did what Spizzirri told him to do.

After watching the first investigative report in 2006, Krause said he couldn’t believe it.

“I felt duped,” Krause said.

Former Palatine mayor, Rita Mullins, was with Save a Life, almost from day one. She denies trying to deceive anyone.

She said the organization kept records of its training.

When asked to present some, Mullins said “I don't know where they are now.”

Spizzirri declined to respond to our story due to an ongoing investigation by the Illinois Attorney General. She did say in an email both she and her organization are in "good standings."

Bivins said Spizzirri needs to account for her questionable claims.

"Answer the questions. Where is our money at?” Bivins said.

Spizzirri lives in California. She references her work with Save A Life as part of her online bio for the San Marcos Mobilehome Residents Association.

With no end in sight for the Attorney General’s investigation and no public accountability for Spizzirri and Save a Life, Bivins said this is how the state and taxpayers lose.

"That's how they get away with it,” Bivins said. “People turn a blind-eye to their activity.”

While there’s no doubt the organization trained many students in and around Chicago, there’s little evidence Save a Life trained the more than 1.5 million students it claimed.

In the state capitol, not one hearing about questions involving Save a Life has ever been held. Instead, the only time the organization or Spizzirri has been mentioned was when the Illinois House celebrated the program and its founder as heroes.

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