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Prairie Watchdogs

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Prairie Watchdogs

A pair of Illinoisians seek to root out corruption in the state—and scale their model for citizens in other states. April 10, 2022
Politics and law
Economy, finance, and budgets

Illinois is one of the most corrupt states in the country. Between 2000 and 2020, its government officials squandered an estimated $10.5 billion in taxpayer funds. The comptroller of a small Illinois township committed one of the largest municipal frauds in American history, embezzling more than $53 million over the course of several decades. Only Louisiana has more federal corruption convictions per capita than the Prairie State.

Why is Illinois so corrupt? For one, its state nickname is deceptive: Illinois is a relatively urban state with a large public sector, with a culture of self-dealing in government that dates to the nineteenth century and big-city machine politics in Chicago.

“If you look at the political activity in a big city, particularly one like Chicago, compared to the political activity in a farm state, there are far more opportunities for moderately paid state and city employees to control or affect large amounts of money,” former Illinois Republican Party chairman Gary MacDougal told Chicago in 2010. “It’s that dynamic that creates corruption.”

The state’s labyrinth of local governments reinforces that dynamic. Illinois has hundreds of obscure administrative districts dedicated to everything from mosquito abatement to flood prevention, each with a board and appointed members with access to taxpayer dollars. The state has proved incapable of adequately monitoring the nearly 7,000 units of government that exist within its borders, and its citizens—particularly the poor—are paying the price.

But two residents of Edgar County, a small, sparsely populated county in southeastern Illinois, are turning the screws on officials and bureaucrats. Kirk Allen and John Kraft founded the Edgar County Watchdogs, an independent government-oversight organization, in 2010 after negative experiences with local government. Their goal: to root out corruption at every level of Illinois government—from the state house to cemetery districts.

In their 12 years of independent oversight, the pair have filed thousands of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and uncovered troves of corruption in state and municipal government—self-dealing, abuse of taxpayer funds, embezzlement, and more. As of April 2021, Kraft and Allen’s investigative efforts had produced 186 indictments and 28 criminal convictions. More than 500 Illinois officials have resigned or been removed from their posts in response to their reporting. Their website catalogs incidents of official corruption and criminal conduct and provides whistleblowers and concerned citizens with a tip line to report suspicious activity.

Kraft and Allen get their tips from inside and outside government. Some come from people who have unsuccessfully filed FOIA requests. The pair often will send the exact same request and get the agency to cough up the desired information; government officials are less likely to spurn a request coming from Kraft and Allen than from an average citizen, given their willingness to litigate.

“If you don’t give us the records, we’re going to file a lawsuit against you,” Allen says. “We’re not going to go to the attorney general, we’re going to take you to court.” In February, they did just that, filing a 19-page complaint against the Illinois Prison Review Board for failing to turn over records as state statute requires. The Review Board’s sloppy response to the watchdogs’ FOIA request had provided answers to questions they never asked and failed to provide the records demanded in Kraft’s clear and precise request.

The watchdogs’ other legal tool of choice is the state’s Open Meetings Act (OMA), which requires most public entities in Illinois to post advance notice of and make open to members of the public their board meetings and other official conferences. It also regulates the number of board members necessary to constitute a quorum, to minimize the possibility of backroom dealing. When public bodies fail to abide by the OMA, the watchdogs bring attention to it on their website, contact the board in question, and sometimes refer the matter to the Illinois attorney general’s Public Access Bureau. If a meeting was invalidly convened, all the actions taken at it can be nullified under state law.

Allen and Kraft are using tactics available around the country—every state plus Washington, D.C. has open-meeting and freedom-of-information statutes. The Edgar County model is scalable, and the pair are trying to bring their knowledge and expertise to prospective government watchdogs across the United States.

In 2017, they started American Watchdogs, a training organization that offers state-specific sessions to teach local activists how to use their state’s freedom-of-information and open-meetings laws to keep tabs on government. Their crash course on filing successful FOIA requests is particularly crucial to the success of fledgling watchdogs. Departments or agencies can reject out of hand poorly constructed FOIA requests. Public agencies rarely turn over damaging material without a fight.

“These people will fight you tooth and nail when it comes to public records—they’ll know real quick what you’re looking for when you start asking,” Allen said at a 2017 American Watchdogs meeting.

Since the pair founded American Watchdogs in 2017, they’ve taught more than 1,000 citizens the tools of the trade. They tell attendees that while publicizing official misconduct won’t make them popular with some politicians, getting at the truth is the most important thing. “When you start publishing about these people on a website that you made, that’s going to create contempt for that public official,” Kraft says. “And we won’t apologize for that.”

Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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