Several challengers vying to unseat Deborah Graham accused the 29th Ward alderman of pay-to-play politics in divvying up $1.2 million in violence prevention funds to community groups that allegedly have ties to Graham.

A spokesperson for Graham denied the charge. She faces seven opponents in next week’s municipal election.

Four of the opponents – Roman Morrow, Thomas Simmons, Beverly D. Rogers and Mary Russell Gardner – held a Tuesday press conference outside Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake St., demanding an investigation in how three groups were selected to receive the state grants. The groups include Kingdom Community Inc., the Learner Network Center, and Living Word Christian Center.

Gardner claims $290,000 went to Kingdom Community Inc., operated by Graham’s pastor, Rev. John Abercrombie, while $100,000 went to Luther Syas of the Learner Network Center. Gardner contends Syas circulated nominating petitions for Graham. Questions were also raised about awarding a $250,000 grant to Forest Park-based Living Word Christian Center, which is not located in the ward.

“This all reeks of cronyism … deception, pay-to-play politics,” Gardner said. “And it is clear that this alderman [doesn’t] even care to give us an explanation … [of] why this happened. It is unacceptable and that is why we are here today.”

Gardner contends Graham has the same old habits of former Ald. Ike Carothers in favoring certain organizations over others.

The three organizations received state grants under Gov. Quinn’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, a violence-prevention program targeting Austin and nearly 20 other Chicago communities plagued by violence.

The three were among seven Austin groups that split $1.2 million to provide re-entry services for ex-offenders, school-based counseling, jobs and mentoring.

Graham’s opponents raised questions about transparency. Rogers contends Graham shares office space with a board member of Circle Family Healthcare Network, the lead fiscal agent that administered the grant.

Rogers also questioned who sat on a 22-member advisory committee established to inform agencies about the grants.

Several community groups attending the press conference contend they were never informed that this grant money existed. They said a bias exists for more established Austin agencies to receive state grants.

“A lot of the smaller agencies that are actually meeting the needs of the community wonder why we aren’t ever involved,” said Nicole Harvey, of Eden Advocacy, which serves domestic violence and sexual assault victims. “Why weren’t we made aware [of these grants], and even if we are … do we have a chance?”

Graham’s campaign manager, Doug Price, explained that the alderman had little to do with awarding the grants. He noted the governor’s office held a meeting last September about the grant. The meeting was attended by other aldermen each of whom were asked to identify possible lead fiscal agents for their respective communities.

Graham, he said, recommended Circle, Bethel New Life, and Westside Health Authority. But Price added the governor’s office had final approval on grant awardees. Calls to the Governor’s Office were not returned by Wednesday’s deadline.

Price also questioned the alleged lack of transparency when the program received more than 40 applications from Austin groups. In Graham’s eight years as state representative, Price said: “I would not be surprised that every recipient of the governor’s violence prevention grants had a relationship with the alderman one way or the other.”

Circle’s CEO, Dr. Andre Hines, called the accusations “politically motivated.” She said grant applications were approved based on how they were “scored.”

“Ald. Graham never called my office to ask where are you in the process, who’s getting funded,” she said. “I never spoke to Ald. Graham during this process. I don’t know her. [Her opponents] are trying to make her look bad.”

Hines said the grant application and selecting the advisory committee were “an open and fair process.” She noted that several public meetings were held, including one hosted by the Governor’s Office, inviting area ministers to identify organizations for the grant.

“We did our due diligence,” she said.