It’s obvious that Illinois faces a long list of problems – a history of public corruption, never-ending financial trouble and the continued exodus of people and businesses – but who or what is at fault is a little harder to understand.
One organization, the Edgar County Watchdogs, points to state officials and government entities that it says have failed to be truthful or transparent, but also to the media, which, the group believes, has failed to hold wrongdoers accountable.
Operating as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit and describing themselves as a “group of concerned citizens,” Kirk Allen and John Kraft started the Edgar County Watchdogs in 2011 to fill the gap in coverage.
“We hold the local government and local public bodies accountable to the people and to the law,” Kraft said. “We do simple things like show up to meetings, and these people, they act completely different when someone is listening to what they do.”
Neither Allen nor Kraft has a background in journalism – they both come from long careers in the military – but shared similar stories of dishonest dealings in small towns southeast of Champaign.
Allen, a volunteer fire chief and emergency medical technician, discovered that his local 911 dispatchers had not been certified in more than six years, despite the director’s insistence that they had been trained. He also found out that the 911 center had not been licensed to operate.
Kraft asked a local school board to act as the videographer for the school play, but was told the job was not on the agenda for that particular meeting. However, he heard the next day that the job was discussed and awarded to someone else.
Allen and Kraft, who are members of Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Chicago Headline Club, work off of tips they receive through their tip line and also allow people to anonymously send emails. They post news of public corruption from 21 counties on their website and include corresponding court documents when possible.
They say there are now seven federal criminal investigations that stem from their work. They recently uncovered the questionable, and what they constitute as illegal, campaign spending of current Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino, which not only led to a criminal investigation, but a complaint with the Illinois State Board of Elections.
In that process, Allen and Kraft filed Freedom of Information Act requests for records from Mautino’s office that they knew he possessed because they had their own copies from other sources. When Mautino failed to provide the records, they sued him to gain access.
“That’s the biggest public official or biggest public impact we’ve had at the state level,” Allen said. “We try to focus more on local government. We’ve always said if you can’t fix it at the local level, you’re not going to fix it at the state level.”
In recent years, Allen and Kraft have focused on local housing commissioners who used public credit cards for purchases for their spouses, township road commissioners who used public funds to oil and chip private driveways, and county elected officials who received health insurance benefits in direct violation of the law.
In an article detailing 83 instances of local public corruption, Allen and Kraft also write about Bob Colvin, who they say was appointed as the city of Paris consulting engineer even though he is not an engineer. They say Colvin, a licensed surveyor, billed the water district for work never performed and attempted to bill the water district again for bridge work in another town.
Colvin did not respond to a request for comment.
Allen and Kraft have also written frequently about alleged missteps by public entities in neighboring counties, such as the Clark County Park District Board. In February 2015, they filed a lawsuit against the board the day after it took action in a public meeting without notifying the public what it was voting on or what action it was taking, as required by the Illinois Open Meetings Act.
In November, the Fourth District Appellate Court sided with the Edgar County Watchdogs and reversed the circuit court’s decision to dismiss its suit.
Clark County Park District Board Commissioner Ron Stone, who has also been written about separately for voting to use public money to pay for a mural on his own building, did not respond to a request for comment.
Allen contends that many of the issues they report on occur because public bodies fail to understand or acknowledge the laws that apply to them before they take action.
“If we see that they’re doing something that isn’t consistent with what the law says, we write about it and cite the law,” he said. “In many cases, they say they didn’t know that, because they didn’t read it. Sometimes it’s ignorance but more often than not, it’s blatant disregard for the law.”
Rod Copas, former chairman of the Iroquois County Board, started meeting with Allen and Kraft in 2013, after a local resident asked it to investigate the Ford-Iroquois Public Health Department for improper spending and insider dealings.
He says he first became suspicious of the health department after its administrator announced a plan to move it to Indiana, and once Allen and Kraft got involved, “we had a whole cubby of things that got uncovered.” The health department was eventually shut down.
“The state of Illinois, if you look at what’s going on right now, no one stands up for the law anymore,” Copas said. “Kirk and John, if you look at their body of work, they are diligent about reading the law and understanding the law. You probably won’t find better experts on the Open Meetings Act in the state of Illinois.”
Allen also contends that while the Edgar County Watchdogs focus on the law in relation to government entities’ activities, the mainstream media typically only reports on the activities. He says it becomes a problem when the media fails to notice that those activities are illegal.
“Frank Mautino is a perfect example,” he said. “All we did was look at the public records on the State Board of Elections website, at his D-2 filings of where he spends his money.
“If anybody would’ve looked at that, he would’ve never won an election. Even the people running against him didn’t look at his campaign spending.”
Kraft adds that the lack of reporting on public corruption increases in smaller communities. He feels that locally in Paris and Marshall, newspapers typically avoid writing anything negative about public bodies for fear of losing supporters.
“If you depend on local business owners who are most likely tied to public officials for your advertising money, are you going to write things about them and lose your advertising?” Kraft said. “Probably not.”
The Edgar County Watchdogs aim to get other concerned citizens involved in exposing public corruption and offer trainings on how to monitor local government using the FOIA, Open Meetings Act and other statutes that govern public entities. They also have plans to train organizations on a national level in the future.