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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.

 

 

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Dixon is the charming little city, a hundred miles west of Chicago, where President Ronald Reagan grew up.

But it’s better known these days for what may be the largest municipal rip-off in American history: Rita Crundwell’s theft of nearly 54 million tax dollars, over 20 years as Dixon’s treasurer and comptroller, to support her horse breeding business and lavish jet-set lifestyle.

How did she get away with it? Simple: No other city official was checking on her handling of tax dollars, and Dixon’s outside auditors and accountants were asleep at the wheel.

In fact, alarm bells didn’t go off until 2012, when the city clerk, filling in while Crundwell was on vacation, discovered a checking account with the unmistakable scent of fiscal fraud, and told the mayor, who alerted the FBI.

Since then, Crundwell’s gone to prison, Dixon’s recovered most of the money by settling lawsuits against the negligent accountants and auditors, and—hopefully— Illinois residents have gotten the message: Public officials have to be closely monitored by watchdogs trained to expose and help eliminate corruption.

Investigative reporters and groups like the Better Government Association watch from the outside, but someone—preferably an independent inspector general with broad powers— should be watching from the inside.

The biggest units of city, county and state government have IGs, and their impact varies widely, as BGA investigations have revealed.

The best IGs can reduce some of the bad behavior, identify blind spots that impede fraud prevention, conduct audits that flag inefficiencies and assess the quality of government services, uncover conflicts of interest that erode public trust, and scout out best practices in other jurisdictions.

At the very least, the presence of an IG can serve as a deterrent.

Unfortunately, too many units of government have no internal watchdog.

Suburban Cook County is a glaring example— a patchwork of 130-plus cities, towns and villages that collectively rival Chicago in their politics, population and the billions of tax dollars they collect and spend.

But with the exception of a few financially strapped municipalities that have accepted County Sheriff Tom Dart’s offer to serve as their IG, hardly anyone is watching suburbs that collectively spend 5 billion tax dollars a year, and employ nearly 25,000 people.

We’ve conducted numerous investigations of suburban mischief, including waste, fraud, inefficiency, nepotism, cronyism, patronage, conflicts of interest, pay-to-pay, and embezzlement—the administrator of a school treasurer’s office we drilled down into was recently sentenced to nine years in jail for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

An obvious conclusion: It’s time for the Cook County Board to seriously consider empowering Sheriff Dart to investigate misconduct allegations in every suburban community that doesn’t have an internal watchdog of its own.

County President Toni Preckwinkle apparently opposes the idea, so maybe she can tell us why, or suggest another oversight strategy.

State lawmakers are also looking at ways to equip every Illinois municipality with a watchdog, so let’s see where that goes.

But let’s not wait until we’re blindsided by another Dixon-like scandal.

Dixon learned its painful lesson the hard way, and since then they’ve implemented internal controls to follow the money.

Taxpayers in suburban Cook and elsewhere deserve the same protection from the mice that play when the cat’s away.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org. Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga

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Police brutality leaves two victims in its violent wake: Physically abused suspects, who obviously suffer the most painful injuries; and taxpayers, who take a financial beating when government is ordered to compensate targets of excessive force.

Consider: It’s cost Chicago taxpayers more than $500 million to settle brutality lawsuits over the last decade, a BGA investigation revealed last year. We also found that suburban Cook County spent $42 million to settle similar cases in the past five years.

Relatively few cops, including former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his infamous torture crew, are responsible for most of the egregious behavior that sparked the lawsuits.

Still, some Illinois law enforcement officials want to purge those painful memories by destroying documents that can provide valuable information about patterns of police misconduct, or uncovered evidence.

They’re seeking court permission to expunge records that go back more than four years.

The BGA is strongly opposed, as we argued in a recent "friend of the court" filing.
Our amicus brief says it’s "the right of the public to access information about its government, and specifically, to know about and analyze allegations of misconduct made against police officers and how those allegations are handled by those in power."

We’re joining opponents of a lawsuit filed by several Chicago Police unions, including the Fraternal Order of Police, which is made up of 12,000 beat cops.

FOP claims its collective-bargaining agreement and the state’s Freedom of Information Act allow exemptions for misconduct records.

Last year, in a different case, the Illinois Appellate Court disagreed, ruling that records involving allegations, investigations, and police misconduct settlements aren’t exempt from FOIA requests and must be made available for public scrutiny.

After that decision the Chicago Tribune requested some of the records, and the city and Police Department agreed to provide them.

That prompted the FOP lawsuit, so the requests are now on hold until the Appellate Court rules on the new challenge. Remember — once records are destroyed they’re gone forever, and the loss would be incalculable. It would impair our ability to investigate patterns of misconduct that unfold over time, and trends that relate to police policies, deployment and supervision.

In 2011 the BGA co-authored an investigation of wrongful convictions that identified police misconduct as a leading factor in rigged cases that sent dozens of innocent men and women to prison for a total of hundreds of years. That’s why the BGA and two journalists with long histories of exposing police misconduct — Jamie Kalven and John Conroy — joined the FOP lawsuit by filing an amicus brief. Conroy was the BGA’s lead investigator on our wrongful-convictions series. Let me repeat that relatively few officers are responsible for most of the misconduct cases.

But the destruction of police files robs us of the ability to distinguish between an exemplary record and a questionable one.

More troubling, secrecy enables the small number of cops who’ve repeatedly been charged with abusive behavior to believe they can engage in brutality with impunity.

And that is truly a miscarriage of justice. So in the spirit of transparency and accountability, let’s preserve records that, to paraphrase the motto emblazoned on the side of city squad cars, "serve and protect" both the public and the police.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org. Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.

Image courtesy of Chicago Sun-Times. 

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Former Chicago Ridge police chief Tim Baldermann boogie-boarding in Australia.

The editors who lay out the Sun-Times totally nailed it last Monday when they filled most of the front page with a color photo of a man bodysurfing in tropical Australian waters while we were getting whacked by a swirling, snarling, way-too-typical spring snowstorm.

The "SURF’S UP" headline, and the subhead—"Former police chief collects disability check and waves"— made the story by ace investigators Chris Fusco and Tim Novak irresistible, as they told us about former Chicago Ridge police chief Tim Baldermann’s legal fight with his ex-employers over the size of the disability check he’s entitled to after a back injury ended his law enforcement career with the municipality.

Our initial reaction at the Better Government Association is probably typical: Why is a guy who’s cashing disability checks for a back injury battling roiling ocean waves off the coast of Australia?

Another scam that rips off taxpayers? Maybe, but not in the most obvious way.

Turns out Baldermann really did have a bad back that required surgery, and his doctor considers body surfing a form of hydrotherapy, as long as the waves are gentle.

Baldermann claims they’re reliably calm in the shallow Australian water where he was photographed.

So let’s stipulate that bodysurfing and collecting a disability check don’t automatically qualify as a scam.

And let’s chill while the courts referee the legal fight between Baldermann and Chicago Ridge officials over the size of his disability check.

Instead, let’s consider a few other things that piqued my watchdog curiosity after I got past the delicious irony on Page One:

+Baldermann apparently wanted to stay on as Chicago Ridge police chief after his injury, which makes sense because top cops don’t usually chase suspects — that’s what beat officers do — but village officials said no.


OK, so why not keep him on the force in another administrative capacity — a training or supervisory or communications role that uses his law enforcement background?

They’re paying his disability with local tax dollars anyway, so why not let him help the community, instead of simply fighting him over the size of his disability check while he bodysurfs?

Something else made my watchdog ears twitch:
+Baldermann is the part-time mayor of a nearby suburb, and full-time superintendent of a tiny, one-building school district.

He was highlighted in the Sun-Times 2012 "Disability Pays" investigation for raking in more dough than any other disabled cop or firefighter with a second job: $274,000 a year in disability pay and two government salaries.

That suggests another Page One picture: Baldermann in front of the hospital where he had back surgery, the village hall where he’s mayor, and the school where he’s superintendent.

Under each picture is the salary, followed by the total: $274,000.

So what’s wrong with this picture? From a good government standpoint, it’s "triple dipping" — collecting three checks from local taxpayers at the same time.

That cries out for a serious conversation in Springfield about limiting individuals to one public paycheck at a time, and requiring, as a condition of disability, a good-faith effort by employees and employers to use the skills and experience of veteran workers who could be contributing to their communities without aggravating their medical problems.

That would be "better government."

And if it ever happens, maybe the headline "SURF’S UP" can be replaced by one that reads: "SCAM’S UP!"


Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached atashaw@bettergov.org. Find him on twitter @andyshawbga

Image courtesy of Chicago Sun-Times, originally posted on Facebook page.

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