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Shaw Thoughts

I’ve been communicating with many of you for nearly 40 years as a newspaper reporter, a political correspondent on TV, a radio commentator and now as President & CEO of the Better Government Association, an anti-corruption civic watchdog organization.

I know what good and bad government look like, who’s using your hard-earned tax dollars wisely (and who’s not), and what we can rightfully demand of our elected and appointed officials to reform government that is broken at virtually every level. I know where the bodies are buried, how to ask the tough questions and how to hold errant public officials’ feet to the fire.

This is where I’ll be posting pieces and producing videos that help you understand what’s going on in the governments around you, what we think about it and what should be done to make it better. After all, that’s who we are: The Better Government Association.

But we can’t do it alone. I can talk the talk, but you have to walk the walk with me and rest of us at the BGA. I hope this blog can inform, motivate and direct our campaign for better government. It’s our right. And their responsibility.



In my wildest dreams — cynics might call them my worst nightmares — the Better Government Association has a hundred employees, a budget of $20 million a year and a full service watchdog operation that shines a light on our most dystopian government center: The federal bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.

Sadly, we're not there yet, and may never be, but we are watching Washington, in an Illinois-centric way, by following the flow of federal dollars to our home state, and holding the officials we send to the White House and Capitol Hill accountable.

The most visible sign of our commitment is the hiring of two Washington-based journalists with impeccable credentials — Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Chuck Neubauer, and his equally impressive partner, Sandy Bergo — to work on stories that often appear in the Sun-Times.

They uncovered the machinations of two former Illinois congressmen, one who scored a huge public pension by taking advantage of loopholes in the system, and another who became a highly paid consultant for companies that depended on his help when he was an elected official. And they told us about a federal construction contract that allowed politically connected Chicago developers to profit handsomely at taxpayer expense.

But the biggest splash came from their inaugural series on U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush's tangled personal and professional finances.

The stories raised questions about:

  • A nonprofit founded by Rush, a Chicago Democrat, getting a $1 million donation from a telecommunication giant's charitable arm to create a "technology center" in an impoverished, violence-plagued South Side neighborhood. The center was never built and we still don't know where the million ended up.
  • Phone, cable and electric companies that depended on Rush's help in Congress collectively donating more than $1.7 million — that includes the tech center grant — to charities affiliated with Rush.
  • Rush the "deadbeat" when it came to paying taxes owed to the government, and appearing to catch a big break on rent for his Chicago political office, in possible violation of federal law.

As Sandy and Chuck were reporting the story, Rush was reacting angrily — yelling and throwing our folks out of his congressional office when we started asking tough questions.

READ MORE: A Rush Of Financial Questions

A months-long BGA/Chicago Sun-Times investigation of U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) is raising serious questions about his personal and professional finances — and whose interests are really being served by him in Congress.

But now there's other noise flowing from our inquiry.

The Office of Congressional Ethics, which investigates possible transgressions by House members, followed up on our series and found "substantial reason" to believe Rush's acceptance of free rent was "in violation of Illinois state law, House rules, and federal law" and represents "impermissible gifts or special favors in violation of House rules and standards of conduct."

The House Ethics Committee, which has the authority to discipline congressmen, announced it's still investigating the matter.

They can issue public letters of disapproval or admonishment, ask the full House to censure a member, or in extremely rare cases, expel someone.

The committee can also decline to take any disciplinary action.

In newly released documents, it's clear that Rush blames us, the messenger, and doesn't fully accept responsibility for what we uncovered.

He told congressional investigators that we're simply "hell bent on using this as an opportunity to raise a profile to show how diligent" we are.

If he means we care about how public officials act and how well their constituents are served, then yes — we're diligent.

And our diligence includes a recommendation this tawdry situation cries out for, aside from any punishment: Ethics training for members of Congress.

According to an article in the National Journal last month, two Congressmen — a Democrat from Rhode Island and a Virginia Republican — "are urging congressional leaders to end what government watchdogs say has been a peculiar exemption for House members from such a mandatory lesson — annual ethics courses otherwise required of all House [staffers], senators, and Senate staffers."

The congressmen are pushing for an end to the exemption when the new Congress convenes in January.

We'll see what happens, but requiring members to know the rules and their ethical obligations is the least Congress can do. It's stunning to think this training doesn't already occur in the House.

Rush isn't the only congressman with a cloud over his head, but our findings, and his apparent unwillingness to take full responsibility for his lapses, suggest a mandatory ethics refresher would do him, and many others, a lot of good.

So, yes, we're not armed to fight all of dysfunctional Washington, but Chuck and Sandy will keep a close watchdog eye on the folks we send there from Illinois.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at or 312-386-9097.

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One of my early assignments at the Better Government Association was to cover the first Blagojevich trial in 2010 for the BGA website, and to provide analysis on TV, radio and in print.

I followed the daily developments — the outrageously entertaining histrionics of the defendant and his entourage, and the damning X-rated audio tapes — but I also framed the trial as a "teaching moment" that gave watchdogs like the BGA an opportunity to assess the former governor's misconduct in the context of Illinois' sad history of corruption, and desperate need of reform.

What laws could be strengthened or enacted to limit conflicts of interest, contract abuse, official misconduct and pay-to-play transactions; and to increase transparency and accountability?

In other words: A blueprint for an ethical post-Blago Illinois.

Well, here we are, a few years and a long prison sentence later and, yes, state lawmakers have taken a few reform steps, but there's a long way to go.

The concept of a "teaching moment" comes to mind again, writ large, in the wake of angry demonstrations and intense national soul-searching following the deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of white police officers in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; Cleveland, Ohio; and Phoenix, Arizona, without any of the cops facing criminal charges.

Protests are continuing, along with an examination of police protocols in threatening situations: When should cops use batons, stun guns and other non-lethal weapons to control suspects and protect themselves, and when is a potential kill shot appropriate?

Should there be video recorders in all police cars, and body cameras on every officer, to document confrontations?

And the justice system: Do current laws fairly and adequately protect both parties — police and victims?

Should the same prosecutors who work side-by-side with police on criminal cases be managing grand jury proceedings that involve deaths at the hands of officers?

And, of course, the overarching issue: What role does race and racism continue to play in these volatile situations?

Americans dedicate a large percentage of their tax dollars to public safety and criminal justice, so they have a right to expect those services — like the rest of government — to be carried out fairly, honestly, transparently, accountably and efficiently.

But unlike bureaucratic functions, cops and courts involve life-and-death decisions, so they have to be watched even more closely.

And two of our most important BGA investigations raised deeply troubling questions about those vital services right here in our own backyard.

We disclosed in the Sun-Times earlier this year that settlements of excessive force lawsuits in Chicago — police brutality beefs, in layman's terms — have cost city taxpayers nearly $500 million in the last decade.

That staggering figure suggests inadequate training, supervision and accountability in the police department, along with an "us-versus-them" culture, and a "Blue Curtain" code of silence that's hard to penetrate.

The BGA uncovered similar shortcomings and equally shocking statistics in an earlier investigation of wrongful convictions in Illinois since 1980, the start of the DNA era:

Eighty-five individuals — mostly men of color — spent more than 900 years in jail for violent crimes they didn't commit; resultant lawsuits have cost state taxpayers nearly $300 million; and only a handful of the cops, prosecutors, forensic experts and judges who contributed to this shameful miscarriage of justice have been held accountable.

Lawmakers in Springfield have enacted a few reforms since our investigation, but like the post-Blago ethics measures, they're incremental steps, not comprehensive remedies.

That's why Ferguson, Staten Island and the other hot spots should come as no more of a surprise to those of us who watch government for a living as the transgressions of Rod Blagojevich and other corrupt public officials.

The environments that enable questionable conduct and tragic outcomes are deeply entrenched, and the painful results sadly predictable.

So the challenge is to understand what happened, and how we might repair those systems, wherever they occur.

The conversation has begun — we're talking the talk non-stop across multiple media platforms — but that's not enough: We have to walk the walk by changing a few laws and a lot of attitudes.

As many have said over the years, "never let a good crisis go to waste."

But rarely has that line been more poignant.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at or 312-386-9097.


Is the Better Government Association going to the dogs?

A few public officials might say that, especially after we shine a bright light on them and hold them accountable for unethical behavior or dubious policy decisions that affect our lives and tax dollars.

But in this case I'm talking about going to the dogs literally, not figuratively, as in: Adopting a watchdog as our mascot.

It makes perfect sense when you consider the symbol of the BGA mission, since its inception in 1923 — that's 91 years ago — has been a bulldog.

Our staff has been talking for a while about adopting a real mascot, and now — with the help of our friends at PAWS Chicago, the city's largest no-kill shelter — we've actually done it.

His name is Watson — he's a big, strong, gentle mix of bulldog and terrier — and he's a great story:

Abandoned with another pup earlier this year on the porch of a West Side building and rescued by two Chicago cops, who take them to the city's Animal Control intake center, where they're put on the euthanasia list — standard procedure for managing overcrowding.

Sadly, his mate never makes it off the list and is no longer with us. But Watson, called "Fulton" back then — after the street they found him on — gets lucky: He's rescued by PAWS volunteers on one of their regular visits to the city pound in search of good adoption prospects.

At around the same time Fulton is arriving at PAWS, I'm talking about our long-standing mascot idea with business and civic leader John Canning, a friend and BGA donor who owns dogs and supports PAWS.

We agree a mascot could help us connect with the wide circle of dog owners and pet lovers who might not be familiar with our watchdog work, which is important because the more people who join the fight for better government, the more heat we can put on public officials to clean up their acts.

So Canning introduces me to the founder of PAWS, Paula Fasseas, who listens to our idea and decides to go all in.

Step One is to find the right dog, so Paula, her daughter Alexis and several other PAWS staffers introduce us to a few pups, including Fulton, who quickly wins our heart and becomes our mascot.

Our BGA staff labors over the name issue — Fulton doesn't feel right — and we eventually settle on Watson, which goes well alliteratively with the word Watchdog.

It also conjures up images of sleuthing, as in Sherlock Holmes' partner, and smarts, as in the iconic IBM computer, so that clinches it.

We introduce Watson and tell his moving story at our annual BGA luncheon in October, he does a star turn on the red carpet at the PAWS "Fur Ball" fundraiser a couple weeks later, and PAWS' trainer Joan Harris continues to get him ready for prime time while we look for a foster family he can live with.

You can meet Watson digitally at: Watson The Watchdog.

The plan, in partnership with PAWS, is to take Watson to BGA events, feature him on social media and perhaps, eventually, in ad campaigns.

Maybe the slogan, with his picture and our logos, will be: "Watson Is Watching And So Are We."

Our hope is that, through Watson, people will learn about us, and PAWS.

That's a win-win for two entities that, in their own very different ways, fight for underdogs.

And if it means the BGA is going to the dogs, so be it.

After all, our job is to sniff out corruption, and who is more inherently qualified to help us do that than a watchdog named Watson?

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at or 312-386-9097.

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