The government watchdogs that put fear into Illinois politicians

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Politics.]

By John Hirschauer
Real Clear Politics

In “Rules for Radicals,” Saul Alinsky urged community activists to hold the enemy accountable to its own rules. “No organization,” Alinsky wrote, “can live up to the letter of its own book.” Though not fans of Alinsky, two men from rural Illinois are taking a page from his playbook, making local government “live up to the letter of its own book” and exposing corruption and malfeasance in turn.

Kirk Allen and John Kraft started Edgar County Watchdogs, a government-accountability nonprofit, in 2011. By appearance, it is a humble operation – Allen and Kraft are the group’s only employees. Edgar County is smaller than most Illinois townships.

In terms of impact, however, the Watchdogs punch well above their weight. Allen and Kraft’s investigative work has resulted in 186 indictments, 28 convictions, and the removal of 425 officials and bureaucrats from public office. They’ve successfully lobbied for a dozen new state transparency laws. They terrify the state’s most corrupt officials. For all their success, their approach is straightforward.

“We’re using their laws,” Allen said.

Illinois’s Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act are Allen and Kraft’s legal weapons of choice. OMA gives citizens the right to participate in public meetings and promotes transparency in the deliberative process. FOIA gives the public qualified access to government information on request. Both allow Allen and Kraft to hold local governments accountable and to publicize official misconduct.

Keri-Lyn Krafthefer, an attorney for a firm representing over 200 units of local government in Illinois, said that OMA and FOIA are essential tools for organizations like the Edgar County Watchdogs and private citizens interested in government transparency.

“Prior to the Open Meetings Act, people could just go to a cocktail party and say, ‘Hey, let’s vote to award this contract at the next meeting, and we’ll give it to our friend Joe,’” Krafthefer said. OMA prevents this kind of self-dealing by preventing a majority of a quorum of public officials from discussing public business outside of an open session, subject to certain exceptions. This allows the public, including watchdogs like Allen and Kraft, to observe and participate in the deliberative process.

Above, Kraft accuses the College of DuPage Board of lying to the state’s attorney general.

FOIA is likewise essential for watchdog groups in their “fight against backroom deals and favoritism,” Krafthefer said. A well-constructed FOIA request against a corrupt township can bring down an entire public board, which is why Allen and Kraft’s most consuming activity is sending and monitoring FOIA requests.

On a typical day, they have between 15 and 20 outstanding requests for government records. Some are recycled requests from private citizens who previously sought documents but without success. FOIA officers tend to be less transparent with regular citizens than they are with the Watchdogs, who they know will litigate if the documents are not produced.

“If you don’t give us the records, we’re going to file a lawsuit against you,” Allen said. “We’re not going to go to the attorney general, we’re going to take you to court.”

The Watchdogs send the rest of their requests in response to tips from whistleblowers in local governments. Once they get a tip, the first thing they request is the offending government’s credit card statements. Often, they find that local officials are attending dinners, ballgames, and parties on the public dime.

Above, Allen details misuse of public funds at a College of DuPage Board meeting.

Private use of public funds violates the Illinois state constitution and qualifies as official misconduct. In the case of small-time violations, Allen and Kraft will confront the offender privately and present him with the evidence. If that doesn’t change his behavior – and sometimes even if it does – they go public with the information and post it on their website. The resulting fanfare typically leads the official to resign or be replaced in the next election. Sometimes, it leads to an indictment.

Krafthefer applauds the Watchdogs’ zealous defense of the taxpayer but worries that their work can veer into the realm of legalism. She views the use of taxpayer funds on items like holiday luncheons and gifts for retiring employees as innocuous behavior best left unpoliced. The Watchdogs disagree, claiming that both expenditures represent a misuse of public funds.

John Kraft thinks that a zero-tolerance approach is the only way to prevent corruption from spiraling out of control.

“When we talk to criminal investigators, they generally say it starts with something small. [An official fills] their car up with gas on the township credit card. Then they pay it back. Then they’re broke again.” Eventually, Kraft said, “the snowball effect gets bigger and bigger and bigger because nobody catches them. And when they don’t get caught … then the dollar amount just gradually starts exploding, and that’s when they get caught, when the local government has lost tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars when they could have stopped it at the $25 gas charge.”

With almost 7,000 units of government — administrative divisions dedicated to everything from libraries to mosquito abatement — Illinois has lots of local government entities to monitor. Florida, by contrast, has fewer than 2,000 units of government overseeing a larger state population. The complex tapestry of local governments in Illinois makes it a breeding ground for corruption.

Above, Allen testifies before the Illinois House.

“In Illinois, we have now been identified, again, as the third-most-corrupt state in the country, and Chicago is the most corrupt city in the United States,” Allen said. “That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

Allen and Kraft’s opponents sometimes call them activists, but they hardly look the part. Allen, a former Air Force technical sergeant who runs a family farm, is affable and polite. He addresses strangers as “sir” and “ma’am,” and is eager to shake hands.

Kraft spent 22 years in the Army and lives in the foothills of Paris, Ill. He looks like an embodiment of the word “curmudgeon” – boxy glasses, a thick gray mustache, and an aggressive comb-over. The impression is confirmed by his nasally voice and deadpan delivery. He has a good sense of humor, but you would not want to anger him. Kraft once put an entire park district board under citizen’s arrest after it refused to let him speak at a public meeting, in violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Above, a news report on Kraft making a citizen’s arrest.

His actions were vindicated in court.

Both men were drawn to watchdogging by personal experience. Allen, an EMT volunteer and fire chief, first took an interest in good-government issues after a bungled 911 call exposed a trove of local corruption.

Allen was paged to the scene of an 11-day-old baby reported as not breathing. He drove at breakneck speed to get the ambulance to the child’s location. When he arrived, the baby was screaming. How, Allen wondered, could the dispatcher have missed the sound of a wailing infant?

“I called the dispatcher, and I asked a simple question – ‘Who took this call, and why didn’t you initiate infant CPR?’” Allen said. “Had they done infant CPR over the phone, they would have been able to ask questions and identify, hey, I can hear the kid breathing, he’s screaming.”

The dispatcher told Allen that he and his colleagues “don’t do that.” Incensed, Allen went to the next emergency-telephone-systems board meeting and asked whether the 911 dispatchers were certified, as required by law. The board didn’t give him a straight answer. The next day, Allen sent his first FOIA request to the state’s Department of Public Health and found that the county dispatchers hadn’t been certified in six years.

“If they’re going to lie about that,” Allen asked, “what else are they lying about?”

Kraft’s story is shorter than Allen’s, but similar. After leaving the military, he tried to work as a videographer for a local school district. He hoped to film school events and sell the footage to parents. Kraft asked the school board if he could film an upcoming school play and was told that the board would not discuss the matter at its meeting. The next day, Kraft found out that the board had given the job to someone else.

“I knew they lied to me, and it got me upset,” he said.

In 2011, Kraft and Allen met at a political event and traded experiences. They agreed to do something about corruption in Illinois and created the Edgar County Watchdogs.

Now a decade into their fight for transparency and responsible for the removal of 425 corrupt officials, the Watchdogs want to bring their operation to scale. Four years ago, the two founders started a 501(c)(3) called American Watchdogs to bring the model pioneered in Edgar County to groups around the country.

“What we found through being a local government watchdog organization,” Allen said, was “a need for an actual training organization to teach people how to do what we were doing at the grassroots level.”

The educational component of Allen and Kraft’s work is also essential for public officials.

“They are educating public officials,” Krafthefer said, pointing out that public officials are not required to take an ethics or public-administration class before running for office. “There are a lot of laws that people have to comply with, and sometimes they don’t know” that those laws exist.

Above, a Watchdog training session in Illinois.

The American Watchdogs operation has a footprint in several states and has taught over 1,000 aspiring watchdogs at seminars and other events. Allen and Kraft hope to inspire in their proteges a commitment to the rule of law, regardless of party affiliation.

“The law doesn’t know what party anybody is. It has no clue. And if you stick to the law, you’d be surprised,” Allen said. “You’ll catch a whole bunch of people on both sides of the aisle.”

John Hirschauer is a staff writer for RealClearFoundation.

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by Real Clear Politics.]

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