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Shaw Thoughts: ‘Political corruption not limited to Chicago or Illinois’

Illustration by Dave Mosele/Shore Magazine

The following “Shaw Thoughts” column appeared in the June 2011 issue of Shore Magazine:

Ever since venerated East Coast writer A.J. Liebling foisted the condescending label “Second City” on Chicago more than half a century ago, ignoring our preference for “Windy City,” Chicago’s political and civic leaders have done everything possible to shed Liebling’s pejorative put-down by scrambling for a “first this,” a “biggest that,” a “best” whatever. The most obvious example is probably the Sears (now Willis) Tower, which enjoyed the “World’s Tallest Building” moniker for years until the record was broken by skyscrapers in other countries.

Chicago earned another ignominious but sadly appropriate epithet years ago as “America’s Most Corrupt City,” gleaned from a history that includes mobster Al Capone and his lackey, Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson; the so-called “Lords of the Levee,” pimp politicians “Bathhouse John” Coughlin and “Hinky Dink” McKenna; Alderman Paddy “Chicago ain’t ready for reform” Bauler; the first Mayor Daley, who made the quaint saying “vote early and often” a stark reality by facilitating the dubious razor-thin Illinois victory that carried John Kennedy to the presidency in 1960; and an endless succession of pols who traded their fancy threads for federal prison jumpsuits.

Measuring corruption is an inexact science that’s part conviction stats and part public perception, so other cities gave Chicago a run for its money over the years, including Newark, New Orleans, New York, Boston and Miami.

But I got a real shock recently from an article on corruption in Lake County, Northwest Indiana’s answer to “Crook”—I mean Cook—County, and found that, on a per capita basis, Lake County prosecutors send 3-1/2 crooked pols to jail for every wayward public official sent to the slammer in Cook. The story also related a comment Robert Kennedy supposedly made in 1962, when he was brother Jack’s Attorney General, that Lake was the “most corrupt [county] in the nation.”

Corruption “is probably worse in Lake County than Chicago,” according to former prosecutor G. Robert Blakey, who wrote the racketeering statutes for Kennedy’s Justice Department and helped draft a lawsuit charging former East Chicago mayor Robert Pastrick and 24 codefendants with running the city as a “criminal enterprise.”

Pastrick’s successor, George Pabey, was indicted for political corruption last year, validating the aphorism that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Gary attorney Greg Reising says that in a one-party (Democratic) county like Lake, “you don’t have constituents, you have friends. And you take care of your friends.”

The article annoyed Schererville attorney Calvin Bellamy, president of the Shared Ethics Advisory Committee, an all-volunteer agency that provides ethics training to public employees in five Lake County communities—Crown Point, Highland, Munster, Schererville and Whiting. They’ve developed a Shared Ethics Code that spells out the principles of ethical government behavior in a manual that’s used in training sessions of 45 minutes to two hours.

“Our multi-community approach is unique,” Bellamy says. “It’s essential to establishing an ethical culture in our area. We would rather try than simply fret about the problem.”

The goal is to eventually train all 1,037 public employees in the five communities on the principles of a government that’s run for the benefit of the public, not the public officials. That’s music to my ears, now that I’ve traded in my political reporter’s hat for an advocate’s soapbox at the Better Government Association, an anti-corruption watchdog group in Chicago. Our mantra is that “We’re Watching—we’re shining a light on government and holding public officials accountable.”

The effort is beginning to make a difference. Cook County elected reform-minded Toni Preckwinkle as its president last fall, and Chicago chose a new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who’s endorsed an ethics agenda that sounds like our BGA mission statement.

Reform is also wafting into Northwest Indiana, according to a survey by Bellamy’s group of several hundred public employees who’ve received ethics training since ’05. Nearly twice as many are now aware of the advisory council’s ethics code, and nearly three times as many understand how to report a colleague’s questionable conduct, which is a key to elevating public sector behavior.

Bellamy’s commission partners invited me to their ethics conference in Merrillville in early March, where I told the group it’s intolerable for public officials to treat our hard-earned tax dollars like it’s their money, and the way to change a “culture of corruption” that’s unaffordable financially and morally is through transparency, widespread civic engagement and forceful public advocacy. Preach, teach and reach.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it best nearly a century ago when he said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” You can’t assess or change what you can’t see.

Better government is our right, it’s their responsibility, and if we keep holding public officials’ feet to the fire, we can make it reality. That would be a “Number 1″ to be proud of in Cook or Lake County.

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Chicago Tribune Editorial: ‘Does Citizen Daley deserve a security detail?’

The following editorial by BGA President & CEO Andy Shaw appeared in the May 13 Chicago Tribune—read it here.

Mayor Richard Daley’s request for a security detail after he leaves office creates a golden opportunity for Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel to demonstrate his approach to solving a problem that has fiscal, civic and public safety components.

Throw in the political and human dimensions for good measure and what you have is a microcosm of virtually every daunting challenge Emanuel will face in the coming months.

The security issue goes beyond Daley. Other recipients include the incoming mayor, the city clerk and treasurer; Ald. Ed Burke, chairman of the Finance Committee; and anyone else on an “as needed” basis.

Questions that have to be answered include: Continue reading

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Blago 2.0: To Watch, or Not to Watch?

(Image courtesy of Andrew Ciscel/Flickr)

One of our BGA interns, Emily Jurlina, ran the Boston Marathon on Monday. Folks in the office tracked her progress online, and at about the halfway point, her digital blip stalled. She ended up finishing in just over 5 hours, way off her typical pace of around 3 1/2. So what happened? Here’s what she told us last night, over Facebook: “Today I ran my slowest marathon time ever—but I’ve never been more proud of myself. Excruciating leg cramps would not defeat me. I write you now as a BOSTON MARATHON FINISHER.”

We say Good for you, Emily, you made us proud.

Emily’s story is timely, and poignant, because here at the BGA we’re feeling a bit cramped and fatigued from the marathon that is the Blagojevich case, and we’re unsure whether we have the juice to track it through to the “end.” Continue reading

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Talking IL Schools, Springfield and More on Chicago Newsroom

Weekend watch: Bulls. Hawks. Cubs. Sox. And if that’s not enough, check out my conversation with NPR Midwest Correspondent Cheryl Corley and CAN-TV’s “Chicago Newsroom” host Ken Davis. We talk about reform efforts in Springfield, including a major education overhaul; and some of Mayor-elect Emanuel’s challenges, including schools, police and youth violence.

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Talkin’ Toni, Rahm and More with CBS’ Craig Dellimore on ‘At Issue’

This weekend I shared a BGA “Reform Scorecard” on Toni, Rahm, Pat, Mike and John on CBS Chicago’s “At Issue,” with long-time friend and news world colleague Craig Dellimore, Newsradio 780′s Political Editor.

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Inspector General to ‘Open Chicago’ With New Transparency Initiative

Image (remixed) courtesy withassociates/Flickr

Today I’m watching another group that watches the behavior of public officials and their governments—the City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (IGO)—which just announced a new transparency initiative dubbed “Open Chicago.”

This is a major step toward the level of transparency that Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis envisioned nearly a century ago when he called “sunlight the best disinfectant.”

You can’t assess a government you can’t see, and this transparency initiative will make it easier to shine a light on government and hold public officials accountable. Chicago taxpayers should be encouraged by the efforts of Joe Ferguson, an inspector general who is willing and eager to use all the tools at his disposal to facilitate the higher quality of government we deserve but too infrequently receive.

Here’s the release from the IG:

Chicago Inspector General Announces New Transparency Initiative “Open Chicago”

Citing the importance of promoting and enhancing transparency in City government Inspector General Joe Ferguson today announced “Open Chicago,” a new transparency initiative.

Hosted on the City of Chicago’s Office of Inspector General’s (IGO) newly redesigned website, the initiative is aimed at increasing the public’s understanding of City government and to further the IGO’s mandate of promoting economy, efficiency, effectiveness and integrity in the administration of the programs and operations of the City government.

“The mission of the IGO is to promote efficiency and effectiveness in government programs.  Vindication of that mission requires accountability, which is elusive without transparency,” said Inspector General Joe Ferguson.  “Public information, necessary to the IGO’s understanding and assessment of government operations, is equally necessary to making City government more transparent to Chicago residents.  With this initiative, the IGO is committing itself to making public data available utilized in the course of our work to inform our understanding of what the City does and how it does it.”

Open Chicago will have three main components: (i) increasing the transparency of the IGO’s audits and program reviews; (ii) publishing and linking to public, non-confidential City data on the IGO’s website; and (iii) identifying best practices in government transparency and accountability.

The goal of Open Chicago is to make City government more transparent.  When appropriate, the IGO will ask the City departments responsible for public data to publish the data themselves.  If City departments agree to these requests and publish the information in a manner that meets the Open Chicago criteria for true transparency, the IGO will simply link to this information on its website.

In response to the first Open Chicago request from the IGO, the City has published its Collective Bargaining Agreements with local unions, Single Audit Reports on Federal Grants, as well as the list of property the City leases.  The IGO has provided these links on its website.  Previously, the IGO posted an Excel version of the City’s budget.

“The City has made strides in committing itself to transparency, but gaps remain.  The IGO is uniquely positioned to shore up those gaps, and our office has the knowledge to provide context for and analysis of City data, as well as the capabilities for making that data accessible to the public,” said Mr. Ferguson.

The IGO will periodically update its Open Chicago page with new datasets.  Questions or suggestions for new data can be directed to openchicago@chicagoinspectorgeneral.org.  Follow the IGO on Twitter at ChicagoIGO for the latest Open Chicago information, as well updates on how the IGO continues to fight waste, fraud, abuse, and inefficiency in Chicago government.

I’d love to read your comments about the initiative….

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