The 1920s through the 1950s
In 1923, Chicago was wide open.
It was the Prohibition Era, and more than 5,000 taverns and speakeasies thrived. City aldermen, who won their votes through fraud and ballot box stuffing, ran illegal gambling houses and brothels. Chicago Mayor William "Big Bill" Thompson — known as one of the worst mayors of any major city at any time in the country’s history — was openly in cahoots with the infamous Al Capone mob.
In May of 1923, a small group of clergymen, lawyers, editors and businessmen, under the guidance of E.J. Davis, director of the Anti-Saloon League, formed the Better Government Association to fight the corruption. They believed "public officials under close scrutiny would serve the public better; that the best voter was an informed one and the best citizen was an involved one."
For the next 34 years, through the administration of Davis and a merger with the Legislative Voter’s League, the BGA worked to educate voters and to encourage efficient municipal spending.
In 1957 new Executive Director George Mahin set out to evolve the role of the BGA.
In 1961, BGA Executive Director George Mahin, and Charles Percy, a board member, launched a new program called Operation Watchdog, which was designed to allow any reporter in town to come to the BGA for help investigating waste and corruption in government. By becoming a media partner, the reporter’s newspaper or television station would get the first crack at the story.
These inspired partnerships put unprecedented pressure on local and state politicians and public officials. It all started with Chicago Tribune reporter George Bliss.
BGA Investigation No. 1
In 1962, Chicago Tribune reporter George Bliss worked with BGA investigators to uncover massive corruption at the Metropolitan Sanitary District. The investigation was a huge success, forcing the firing of corrupt employees and the resignation of their political bosses. The investigations rocked Chicago's infamous political machine.
By 1969, the BGA had revealed massive vote stealing, election fraud, ambulance shortages, nursing home abuses and numerous instances of tax-gobbling waste, fraud and abuse. After producing a number of award-winning stories as a media partner, George Bliss joined the BGA as an employee, staying on as the BGA’s chief investigator through Mahin's retirement, through Richard Friedman's brief tenure as executive director (1969-1971) and into J. Terrence Brunner's first years at the BGA. Bliss returned to the Tribune in 1972, as the head of a special investigative task force.
By the time J. Terrence Brunner joined the BGA in 1971, the organization had earned a national reputation for its powerful investigations, and had helped its media partners win two Pulitzer Prizes along with countless other journalism awards. Soon after Brunner’s arrival, the BGA exposed election corruption in Mayor Richard J. Daley's political machine, winning the Chicago Tribune another Pulitzer and causing Mayor Daley to accuse the BGA of being "an arm of the Republican Party."
Under Brunner's guidance, the BGA again expanded its focus and raised its profile, partnering with local and national TV media. The BGA continued its work with the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Daily News, but also began to work with national newsmagazines such as CBS’ 60 Minutes, and ABC News’ 20/20.
The Mirage Tavern Investigation
In 1977, the BGA worked with CBS’ 60 Minutes and the Chicago Sun-Times to produce the landmark Mirage Tavern investigation, in which the BGA and the Sun-Times purchased a run-down tavern in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, and put cameras in the wall to record what became a parade of bribe-seeking inspectors and employees. The incendiary investigation caused a national sensation, a spate of firings and new reforms.
In 1979, the BGA opened offices in Washington, D.C., and Springfield, Ill., to expose corruption at state and national levels. Though the program was extremely successful — producing more than 20 hard-hitting investigations in just five years — it was too expensive to maintain. The D.C.-based office was closed in 1984.
In addition to expanding the organization's reach and profile, Brunner expanded the BGA’s capacity to push for reform. He developed a top-flight legal program, and a nationally recognized investigative internship program, which has trained hundreds of future lawyers, journalists and civic activists.
The BGA continued to produce an astounding number of local and national news stories. The BGA exposed fraud in the Chicago Public Schools, which led to reforms of the whole school system; the BGA uncovered lax security at O'Hare International Airport, which led to heightened security measures; and BGA investigations into local police departments led to reforms that resulted in the formation of multi-jurisdictional task forces in Illinois. In 1999 the BGA filed a lawsuit against George Ryan, seeking to hold him accountable for the massive corruption that occurred during his tenure as secretary of state. Ryan eventually was indicted by the U.S. Attorney, and in response to Ryan’s misdeeds, significant ethics reforms were enacted by the state.
2000 to 2004
In the new millennium, the BGA exposed the public to a network of insiders who were obtaining concession contracts at O’Hare. The most notable recipient was Oscar D’Angelo, a disbarred attorney who worked as an unregistered lobbyist to broker the deals. D’Angelo was also a close friend to Mayor Richard M. Daley. As a result of this investigation, the city revamped Chicago’s lobbyist ordinance to tighten its lobbyist registration requirements.
After nearly 30 years as executive director, Brunner retired, and former BGA General Counsel Terrance Norton took the helm. Under Norton's watch, the BGA expanded its ongoing investigations into George Ryan’s fundraising practices; released a comprehensive nursing home guide, and compiled the BGA Integrity Index, the nation’s first comprehensive analysis and ranking of government transparency and accountability laws across the 50 states. The Index, published in the fall of 2002, received nationwide coverage and spurred many states to improve their laws.
In 2003, Sue Walker replaced Norton as executive director in an interim capacity. During a time in which many non-profit organizations faced overwhelming fundraising challenges, Walker sustained the BGA’s mission and kept the doors open. In 2004 former BGA staff attorney Jay Stewart became the new executive director.
2004 to 2009
Shortly after Jay Stewart’s arrival, the BGA recruited new staff, hiring its first chief investigator in many years. Grants were secured from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation, helping to restore the BGA’s landmark investigative program. Under the leadership of Dan Sprehe, the BGA’s investigative program was revived, and valuable media partnerships were re-established.
In the spring of 2005, the BGA participated in a joint investigation with the Residents Journal, revealing Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) contractors had contributed more than $250,000 to the 17th Ward Democratic Organization, a political committee in the ward where CHA CEO Terry Peterson formerly served as alderman and committeeman.
While investigating the campaign contributions to the 17th Ward Democratic Organization, the BGA discovered numerous donations from what appeared to be 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations. Upon further investigation, the BGA found that more than 400 political contributions from such organizations had been given in Illinois since 1999. Although there is no law preventing candidates and campaign committees from accepting these contributions, tax-exempt organizations (under IRS tax law) are prohibited from engaging in making campaign contributions to candidates or party campaign committees. As a result of the investigation, several campaign committees returned the contributions they received from tax-exempt groups.
In the areas of policy work and transparency promotion, the BGA worked to ensure the City of Chicago’s Public Arts Program was run in a transparent and accountable fashion. The BGA and Scott Hodes, a Chicago attorney, founding member of Lawyers for the Creative Arts and current member of the BGA Board of Directors, filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging a history of gross mismanagement in the distribution and recording of funds for Chicago’s capital projects. The suit was settled and the city agreed to comply with the Open Meetings Act, post more information regarding the Public Art Program online and improve its financial reports.
2009 to Present
In June of 2009, the BGA welcomed new executive director, Andy Shaw. Shaw is an award-winning Chicago journalist who spent 37 years covering local, state and national politics, business, education and day-to-day news at the The City News Bureau of Chicago, Chicago Sun-Times, NBC 5 and ABC 7. When he took the helm of the BGA, the organization was in crucial need of revitalization — a limited watchdog group with a staff of two. Shaw set out to aggressively rebuild the BGA, believing the citizens of Illinois deserve to have their faith in government restored; that it’s unacceptable to shrug our shoulders, utter the old canard, "you can't fight City Hall," and buy into legendary Chicago alderman Paddy Bauler’s boast, "Chicago ain’t ready for reform."
The BGA has since undergone a remarkable evolution, reorganizing and growing to lead the effort to advance transparency, accountability, efficiency, and honesty in state and local government. There are now five working units that make up the organization: Investigations, Advocacy, Communications, Watchdog Training, and Reporting and Administration. In the fall of 2010, the BGA launched the first phase of its redesigned website: a platform created to reach a larger audience statewide, motivate citizens to responsible and informed action, become the go-to place for news and information on how public officials are spending our tax dollars, and a way for people to convene to share tips and ideas.
Recent media partnerships, with Fox Chicago, ABC 7, CBS 2, Chicago Sun-Times, Crain’s, Chicago magazine, the Daily Herald and the Chicago News Cooperative, have followed investigations into waste, fraud, inefficiency and pay-to-play contracting. A joint investigation with the Chicago News Cooperative revealed a bloated payroll at the seldom-scrutinized Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. The BGA also continues to investigate the misdeeds at Metra, which have resulted in a series of partnership stories with the Sun-Times.
Shaw has also sought to build the advocacy arm of the BGA, so as not to just expose, but also propose. Policy suggestions are released with many of the BGA’s investigatons. The organization has filed lawsuits to force compliance with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and has lobbied lawmakers to follow good-government principles when it comes to reforming legislative redistricting, public pensions, Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and privatization. The organization has also entered into partnerships with local universities and like-minded civic groups to support reform initiatives.