EDGAR CO. (ECWd) –
A lot has been said lately on why we think there are problems in local governments, especially the local governments in Edgar County, and our methods of exposing what we see wrong. In this article I am going to attempt to explain what we believe to be the underlying causes of these problems, and to prove that they are in deed problems even though it “looks like things are going just fine”. In our local governments there has been a prevailing attitude of “that’s how we’ve always done it” – and that attitude is wrong on so many levels.
The former United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, Mr. Patrick Fitzgerald wrote an extremely interesting article entitled “Public Corruption: The Cost of Public Corruption – And The Need for the Public to Fight Back” (available here) that explained what he called the “Culture of Corruption” or the “Culture of Acceptance”. Some of the key points he made were:
• The victims are those who are shaken down, and members of the public paying a higher price through inflated costs and loss of faith in government.
• Millions of taxpayer dollars are paid out to contractors for contracts steered to them by public officials.
• Corruption changes the face of a community – zoning rights, land development through insider knowledge, and projects steered towards land developers using insider knowledge.
• Apathy by the public – the “Culture of Acceptance” – he stated that this is the single most harmful affect of corruption. People see decades of corruption and simply accept it as the status quo. They assume government systems are broken and there is nothing they can do about it. So they simply accept it as normal, or worse, they get entrenched in corruption themselves since they see it as the only way to get ahead.
• Loss of trust in their government. People tend to look the other way and are reluctant to get involved in politics because of it.
• Law enforcement efforts should not be used as a scapegoat for the public to remain silent.
• Public refusal to remain silent and its refusal to accept corruption is the first line of defense against it.
The first issue is in trying to define the word corruption when dealing with public bodies. So for the purposes of this article, I will define it according to our beliefs of what public corruption involves. The silence speaks for itself (no pun intended).
-Cornell University Law School defines it as: Public corruption involves a breach of public trust and/or abuse of position by federal, state, or local officials and their private sector accomplices. By broad definition, a government official, whether elected, appointed or hired, may violate federal law when he/she asks, demands, solicits, accepts, or agrees to receive anything of value in return for being influenced in the performance of their official duties. This influence can come from generations-long family/friend connections that are influencing decisions and contracts, some given under the guise of professional services, thereby circumventing the bidding process.
-John Jay Hooker, a well know attorney and businessman, stated that,’ There will be no justice, there will be no government of the people, by the people, and for the people, as long as the government and its officials permit bribery in any form.’ You can interchange bribery and corruption and the end result is the same.
-I will also add, in terms of defining political/public corruption, that it can take many forms including steering contracts to friends and relatives, bid-rigging thru improper communications with a particular bidder, contractors paid by a public body for advice also obtaining contracts based on that advice, hiring of relatives, voting on use of grant funds and receiving private work based on the receipt of those funds, use of public equipment and funds on private property, failure to properly assess property, advance notice of property purchases or significant development projects, I could go on forever…
-Local township road commissioners were using township equipment and funds to resurface certain driveways within their townships. When we first brought it up, the answer was “we’ve always done it” and the usual “what business is it of yours?” The law is clear; you cannot use public funds or equipment for personal use. The funds used came from the motor fuel tax fund, which is a protected fund that can only be used for the purpose stated on the tax levy. If you ever wondered why your property taxes are high and keep climbing, it is little things like these that add up to local governments needing more money in their budgets. On top of that, this gives the appearance that certain people had work done because they were “connected” and that left the rest of the township voters wondering why they didn’t get these “free” driveways also. Those that did not complain had various reasons, some of them being fear of reprisal, intimidation, loss of jobs, being labeled a troublemaker, etc. After all, what business is it of theirs? It’s only their tax money in use. Illinois Department of Transportation investigated the situation and determined it to be a violation of the law and demanded that steps be taken to ensure it does not happen again. This sent a message to townships across the state that they need to discontinue using public funds in this manner.
-Certain properties were being labeled as real estate tax exempt, when according to law they were required to pay property taxes. These were properties owned by public bodies that were leased to private individuals and private for-profit companies. Others were owned by nonprofits and leased out to farmers, not being used for the stated purpose on their IRS filings. When this was brought to the attention of the county board at the time, and to the assessor’s office, we met the same road blocks. “Who are you to question what has been going on for decades?” – “It only amounts to a few hundred dollars” – “It must be right if it has been happening for this long.” To make a long story short, after filing several complaints, new paperwork was submitted to reapply for the exemptions. Thru extensive obfuscation, unsigned documents, and flat out false statements on behalf of local city and county officials, the Illinois Department of Revenue made a determination. Their determination was that real estate taxes must be paid on these properties since they were not being used for their tax exempted purpose. This put more money back into the public bodies in the form of property taxes. This benefits all of us from school districts, county, townships, etc. Why was this not caught twenty years ago? Because it was always done this way.
-The sale of the county ambulance service to a private individual is another example. Nothing went out for bid and a county employee, the same one that was responsible for its demise, made the purchase. Makes you wonder why he would make the purchase if it was such a financial drain on the county. The agreed upon sale amount was never paid, and we believe there was never any intention of the former county board and former state’s attorney for any amount to be paid. We believe it was simply a paperwork shuffle to make it appear to the public that money was actually paid for the purchase. This false purchase was defended for over ten years, even going so far as inserting a sentence in an audit over nine years later that everything had been paid in regards to the ambulance purchase. Nobody was supposed to notice that there were no documents supporting that statement. The board sat silent, in acceptance, and condoning it by their silence…this flagrant display of lies and deceit.
-False claims of meeting attendance and collection of payments for attending meetings that never occurred. We brought this to the attention of the ETSB board, the county board, and the State’s Attorney. We were labeled as vindictive. Why should we care about false claims made by the 911 coordinator? The fact is that these claims should have been prosecuted as the felonies that they were, instead no action was taken. The State’s Attorney looks the other way. A few months later, the ETSB board headed up by the ambulance service “purchaser”, declared in a public meeting that they had approved, and still approve of, payments for attending meetings that never occurred. Not one person in position of power has asked where the ETSB board had the power to approve felonious acts by their sole employee. Does this not make them accomplices to felonies? We believe so. But this is still met with silence, an acceptance of illegal acts that they hold the power to stop, but refuse. A “culture of silence.”
-A county employee working two county jobs, during the same working hours, and getting paid from both county departments for the same hours worked. This was also proven with their own paperwork. The State’s Attorney sat silent. The County Board sat silent, the ETSB board sat silent, and in reality it was all condoned by their collective silence. To date no action to recover the illegally paid funds.
-A private attorney was hire by the ETSB. We told them for months it was not legal, we showed them the statutes, Attorney General Opinions, and precedent setting court judgments. Everyone sat silent until we managed to prove our point during a public meeting. The State’s Attorney finally acknowledged it as fact. We then had to threaten suit for recovery of funds paid to the illegally hired attorney before the State’s Attorney would ask for the funds to be returned to the taxpayers. Funds were recovered.
-False claims for reimbursement travel expenses, and using public credit cards for personal use. Housing commissioners were also receiving monetary funds in violation of state mandates. This was brought to the attention of the Edgar County Housing Authority, and a report alleging fraudulent claims and illegal use of public credit was given to the Sheriff’s Department. The report was founded and forwarded to the State’s Attorney. He sat silent. The Housing Authority even had the Chicago branch of the federal Housing and Urban Development send an email stating our housing commissioners do not fall under those rules. HUD quickly back-tracked when I pointed out, in the statute, that they did in fact fall under state rules. The board hired an attorney to answer FOIA requests and sat in silence, accepting the “culture of corruption” that had been going on for years. Nobody has been held accountable.
-Wage payments tendered out of petty cash, gift cards for “Christmas presents”, vehicle maintenance out of public official’s private business, falsified paperwork to make a Christmas party look like an Annual meeting. All of these were reported to the county board and other appropriate officials. Once again, no one was held accountable. Those that held the power sat silent.
-Illegal gun sales by our former Sheriff. Illegal gun purchases by his deputies. This was well documented using the Freedom Of Information Act. Their own documents proved what they did. We filed a report with the Sheriff Department, who found it credible and forwarded it to the State’s Attorney. He sat silent. We gave the information to the Illinois State Police, Zone 5, and they said that even if they determined it to violate the law, all they could do would be to submit the report to the State’s Attorney, and with his track record it was not worth expending the man-hours to have no charges filed. We reported it to the ATF, who has also not responded. You have to ask yourself how long you would have to sit in handcuffs and how many felony charges you would have to fight in court if the former Sheriff or his deputies had caught you selling guns with serial numbers scratched off. I’m sure some poor sole paid that price already or they wouldn’t be in the position to sell them in the first place. But it’s OK, it wasn’t you. Once again everyone with the power to say, “NO! This will not happen while I am in charge” failed the very public they are charged to serve and to protect. Ask yourself what kind of message this sends.
-Public credit card abuse in DeWitt, Iroquois, and Douglas Counties (Arcola Township), and grant fraud in Edgar, Iroquois, Ford, and Effingham Counties just to name a few more without making this article too long.
The above true statements don’t even break the surface of what has been happening. The in-your-face cover-ups clearly do not represent those actions that should be taken when stories like these are brought to the public’s eye. Unfortunately this is not unique to Edgar County. It’s happening all over the state and country in every level of government.
To illustrate the lengths that even local newspapers, those newspapers that historically had been the driving force in rooting out corruption (until recent years), will go to protect their corrupt public officials; just last week in Clinton, Illinois the local printed newspaper wrote an almost full page, front page article on a Freedom Of Information Act Request I had submitted to determine who received gift cards from the County of DeWitt. It is my view that gift cards are not an allowable expense, and certainly not without payroll taxes being deducted. That paper, followed the storyline of the political party that lost a few seats at the last election, and basically said my request for information made the employees fearful of accepting the gift cards. They accused other county board members of using us to do their dirty work. The fact is that I read about it in a report on board actions in one of the local papers up there and wanted to see just how much taxpayer money was being given away in gift cards. What bothers me most about this article isn’t that they wrote about it, it is that they obviously condone the actions of the board with their refusal to educate their audience to the truth. The “Fourth Estate”, which news organizations used to proudly call themselves, is on its last breath.
The very concept of public trust is undermined when people are not held accountable. The deterrent effect for future violations does not exist because those violating the public trust know they will never be held accountable. I charge each and every citizen, public official, and public employee to take a stand. Do what is right, not what is easy. It is not too late, it is never too late.
I will end with a quote from a paper written by Dr. Livingston Smith, when he said during an international conference on the media’s role in exposing public corruption:
“[The media role is in] fostering a climate of public opinion which regards the corrupt, however rich and powerful they may be, with the contempt they deserve.”
It is not us, the citizen, or even the citizen journalist, that need be ashamed; but rather it is our duty to shine the light of Truth as bright and as long as humanly possible, and shout out the names as loud as possible, of those that refuse to be responsible for, and of the individuals that perform and permit these acts that undermine the public trust.