I-Team: A Fish Tale

July 14, 2010 (CHICAGO)

With a flourish last week, Governor Pat Quinn signed his name to a deal that will result in a downstate company getting $2 million in state funds to build a new fish processing plant.

The private company would then sell tons of Asian Carp to the Chinese and create 180 new jobs - but the I-Team has learned that this is "a fish tale" that began years ago.

To us, they are the great scourge of the Great Lakes. To the Chinese, fresh water Asian Carp are great eating.

As Governor Pat Quinn said last week: "If you can't beat 'em - eat 'em."

With that quip, Quinn signed off on a contract between the big river fish company north of St. Louis and the Zu Shen Meat Company in Beiijing, China.

Quinn is promising two million state dollars to the Illinois firm to build a new processing facility large enough to meet the Chinese demands for 30 million pounds of Asian Carp by the end of 2011.

Ross Harano put the deal together.

"I've known Ross Harano for many, many years," said Quinn. "He's the marketing director for Big River Fish Corporation."

How Ross Harano reached that position is the beginning of the fish story.

Although it wasn't disclosed at last week's Asian Carp unveiling, Harano was actually a government official himself in 2003 - the state director of trade - when Big River Fish Corporation came to him for help in selling fish outside the U.S.

"Well, I knew them from way back, I was trying to help them six years ago, in terms of developing a market for the fish in China," said Harano. "But the marketing approach wasn't the right one."

Harano, a Blagojevich appointee, served as trade director until 2005, during which time Big River Fish President Rick Smith says the trade office even arranged a trip for him and other small businesses to China looking for new markets.

"Mr. Harano left the State of Illinois employment more than five years ago, he is in private business, he works for this company or he is a consultant to the company, and in no way, state or form is he working for the State of Illinois," said Quinn.

It was Harano and Big River Fish Company that came to the state in March asking for state funds to process fish for the Chinese, after they had already signed a memorandum of understanding for 30 million pounds of Asian Carp to them with no mention of the deal being dependent on help from the state.

"Without the state's help, we wouldn't have been able to meet the demands of the quantity that they're looking for," said Harano.

Asked if the project could go on without the $2 million in government funds for whatever reason, Harano said, "We would expand the current facility slower, and we would slowly build up to the 30 million pounds."

Quinn, however, differed on whether it would have happened without the money.

"No... they couldn't do it unless they got the $2 million grant from the state in order to do the refrigeration, we're talking about export of Asian Carp," said Quinn.

It was not entirely clear Monday night whether the Illinois carp deal would have collapsed without $2 million in state funding, or whether that money simply allows the company to move faster.

After the I-Team interviewed the governor and Harano, numerous representatives for the state and the company called attempting to clarify.

Even the 180 jobs promised under the plan have fine print. Only 61 are new company employees. The rest are existing fisherman, hired to bring in more carp.

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