The importance of citizen tracking in budget battles
With Illinois government now billions of dollars in the red, citizens might like to know where the politicians in both parties are stashing their cash. Now you can. As long as you have a smartphone, you can track state spending down to your neighborhood. Be prepared, though, because the results aren't pretty.
The political class in Illinois wants you to believe that your voice and vote don't matter. It's nonsense. Using an accountability model of open data, citizen engagement, and earned media, regular citizens can help squeeze-out waste, taxpayer abuse and fraud.
Watchdog groups are doing this across Illinois.
It took a 2013 lawsuit against then-Comptroller Judy Baar-Topinka, who rejected a Freedom of Information request. Because of this suit, our organization, American Transparency. was able to put together a database of a half-million vendors paid from a half-billion transactions from a half-trillion of your tax dollars. We've just, updated our app, Open The Books, which makes citizen activism easier by exposing public spending at all levels.
In May, we added 10 years of all state checkbook payments to already captured spending from the local, state and federal governments. The app is free for Apple and Droid platforms.
Here are just three tidbits we tracked down after searching state spending:
• Attorney General Lisa Madigan's travel reimbursement payments went to a "supervising" attorney, Cecilia Abundis -- who lives two states away -- 507 round-trip miles from Dearborn, Michigan, to Chicago. Madigan signed off on 18 travel vouchers forcing taxpayers to pay thousands of dollars from an "in-state travel reimbursement" fund -- some of the trips were listed to 'Mom's Residence.'
• Rich Miller, perhaps the state's most conflicted "journalist," runs a subscription blog called Capitol Fax. Incredibly, Miller is compensated by taxpayers with nearly $260,000 flowing to him from 70 state agencies. Look up his company, Ahead of Our Time Publishing.
• Over $320,000 in payments flowed to lobbyist Shea Paige & Rogal since 2009. Comptrollers Topinka and now Leslie Munger paid the bills. This taxpayer-funded lobbyist benefited court reporters employed by chief circuit court judges. The judges didn't actually contract directly, but through Court Reporter Services -- an administrative office of their own system. In this convoluted scheme, circuit judges cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars for a lobbyist paid by the comptroller -- who, as a state agency, is barred by law from contracting with lobbyists.
Too many times in Illinois, taxpayer dollars flow on bipartisan relationship. In the example above, Dallas Ingemunson is a key executive at Shea Paige Rogal and chairman emeritus of the Illinois Republican Party. Named partner Gerald Shea is a former Democratic Illinois House Majority Leader.
Transparency is the foundation of smart government because it answers key questions in public policy: "How much does government really cost?" and "Are there indications of waste, fraud or corruption?" If the citizenry does not know the impact government has on their lives, it has no ability to exercise its right of oversight.
If you download Open the Books app and put in your ZIP code, what "essential" spending will you find in your town and across the state? With 10 years of state contracts, grants, awards, reimbursements and payments, it's nearly certain you'll find some local business, citizen, politician, or organization receiving a piece of the state spending pie.
As you review all of the spending, keep our honorary board chairman, former U.S. Senator, Dr. Tom Coburn's question to taxpayers in mind: Is the spending in the public interest, or the special interest? After all, it's your money.
Adam Andrzejewski is the founder of the transparency website OpenTheBooks.com.