Category Archives: Andy Shaw

BGA Loses a Best Friend, John J. White

John J. White (1919 - 2011)

I am saddened to share news that the BGA lost one of its best friends, John White. John was a few months short of his 50th anniversary as a BGA Board member when he died last week. I was fortunate to spend a few minutes with John in his final days, and I know he heard and understood my heartfelt expression of gratitude for his passionate commitment to the BGA over nearly half a century.

You can read about John’s remarkable life—he epitomizes the “Greatest Generation”—and find the details of the memorial service planned for Friday, in this death notice, found here.

John: We miss you already.

Andy Shaw
BGA President & CEO

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Big Changes Follow BGA Investigations

By Andy Shaw, BGA President & CEO

Illustration/Better Government Association

Last month, the BGA and FOX Chicago exposed Chicago city officials spending your tax dollars on lavish meals, first-class seats and fancy hotels, and even red-light camera tickets. These investigations had results:

Today the city is making big changes to rein in city spending and credit card abuse. Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he’s eliminating most of the 500 city credit cards and banning the use of petty cash altogether.

Here’s what the Sun-Times had to say this morning:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is cutting from 500 to just 30 the number of credit cards used by local government agencies — and banning the use of petty cash altogether —after alleged abuses that ousted the chiefs of the CHA and Chicago Park District.

Government employees will also be expressly forbidden from spending taxpayers’ money on everything from alcohol, flowers, office decor and restaurant meals within a 50-mile radius of Chicago to sponsorships, charitable donations and parties celebrating holidays, birthdays and employee appreciation.

Mayor Emanuel/Sun-Times

To guard against future abuses, only five credit cards will be issued to each of six agencies: the CTA, CHA, Park District, Chicago Public Schools, City Colleges and Public Building Commission. Their use will be confined to top executives, whose expenditures will be posted monthly to shine the light on credit-card spending.

Last month, a joint investigation by the Better Government Association and WFLD-TV uncovered alleged credit-card abuses at the CHA and the Park District.

The card issued to Chicago Housing Authority CEO Lewis Jordan had been used to pay for costly meals at Gibsons and other upscale restaurants.

The investigation also found CHA credit cards were used to buy thousands of dollars worth of flowers, cakes and holiday gifts for employees, a suite at the United Center and to pay red-light camera tickets.

Emanuel has made ethics reform a central theme of his new administration and pounced on the abuses. He called a halt to credit-card spending and ordered a sweeping audit of agency policies. Jordan subsequently resigned.

The investigation also hastened the departure of Park District Superintendent Tim Mitchell, a political operative for former Mayor Richard M. Daley who had been angling to stay under Emanuel.

Now, City Comptroller Amer Ahmad — with pro-bono help from Sidley Austin LLP and the Civic Consulting Alliance — has completed his review. It wasn’t pretty.

He found that the city’s loosey-goosey or non-existent policies governing credit cards, petty cash and employee reimbursement had opened the door to an array of abuses that circumvented city contracts that would have offered taxpayers a cheaper bulk price.

“Although all policies specifically stated that the card must be used exclusively for business purposes, questionable and/or inappropriate expenditures were identified, such as: extensive local meals/refreshments; entertainment; excessive professional development/executive coaching; parking/ red light tickets; car washes; sporting goods; flowers [and] cable bills,” said the report, obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The city’s petty cash policy is supposed to limit accounts to $1,000 and individual expenditures to $1,000. Even so, there were “numerous reimbursements in the thousands of dollars and one as high as $34,000,” the report stated.

Sources said the $34,469 expenditure was for gasoline. That’s even though recurring fuel purchases are supposed to fall under the city’s competitively bid fuel contract.

City Hall will continue to steer clear of credit cards. The 30 cards issued to other government agencies will be confined to “emergency purchases.” They will be controlled by the agency’s chief financial officer and registered with the city comptroller. “If it is determined that an expenditure purchased with a procurement card is not for emergency purposes, the agency’s access to procurement cards will be revoked,” the policy states.

From now on, employees will be required to submit their non-travel expenses within 30 days and explain why the item was not purchased “through the normal purchase order/ procurement process.”

“The primary means of purchasing valid goods and services necessary for conducting City of Chicago business should be through a competitively bid procurement process,” Ahmad wrote in a memo to city department heads.

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Filed under Andy Shaw, Results

Blago 2.0: To Watch, or Not to Watch?

By Andy Shaw, BGA President & CEO

(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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Musings on Maria: a Post-Investigation Perspective

By Andy Shaw, BGA President & CEO

Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas

Our BGA/CBS 2 investigation of Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas’ questionable expenditures, budget chicanery and lack of transparency sparked a ton of reaction, ranging from taxpayer outrage to shrugs of “so what else is new?” to a vigorous defense of the treasurer’s overall stewardship of an office that’s historically been a cesspool of waste, inefficiency and corruption. Nothing encapsulates the debate more poignantly and succinctly than my brief email exchange with Allan Mellis, a former County employee from Lincoln Park who’s a close observer of the local political scene. So I want to share it:

MELLIS: “I just saw the story about Maria Pappas and while the allegations may show some misuse of taxpayer dollars, her transformation of the office of treasurer should be a case study for the BGA on how to take an office that was completely inefficient to one of the most efficient offices in the county if not the state. I remember sending in my tax bill when Eddie Rosewell was treasurer and wondering why my check had not been cashed for three to four weeks. With Maria Pappas my check has CLEARED MY BANK in three days. She has brought the office into the 21st century and has generated significantly more revenue with significantly fewer employees. I would appreciate your opinion of her improvement of the Treasurer’s Office.”

SHAW: “Thanks for the feedback Allan. I don’t disagree with anything you said about office improvements under Maria, but our three stories with CBS 2 reveal misleading budgeting, a lack of transparency and questionable expenditures of tax dollars. That doesn’t negate her accomplishments, but her accomplishments don’t excuse those transgressions.”

The point here is that nothing in the world of investigations, civic engagement or public policy advocacy is black and white or cut and dry. It’s all laced with shades of gray and nuance. Unfortunately the subtle distinctions are frequently lost in or overshadowed by the basic facts of the story. So history may judge Maria Pappas much differently than the court of public opinion that follows our investigations. The same is true of any public official who is scrutinized by the news media and watchdog organizations.

We at the BGA are watching. We’re shining a light on government, and that will continue with what I hope is an increasing scope and impact. Better government is a right and a responsibility. And if we do our jobs smartly, aggressively and creatively—with the help of an engaged citizenry—it can become a reality. Illinois has thousands of dedicated public servants who do their jobs honestly and efficiently. Maria Pappas may be one of them in most ways. But when she, or any other public official, treats our hard-earned tax dollars like its their money—through waste, fraud, inefficiency, nepotism, cronyism or patronage—we will call them out and tell them it is not OK. It’s simply not tolerable. I look forward to pursuing our mission with your support—whether it’s tips, insights, thoughts, suggestions, criticism or contributions. They’re all the lifeblood of a non-profit. Meanwhile, thanks for caring about better government.

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Billion-Dollar Baby: A Cautionary Tale

By Andy Shaw, BGA President & CEO

On the way back from Springfield... (Jenny Downing/Flickr)

She is somebody somebody sent.

In the best—or maybe it’s the worst—tradition of local politics. And she was pressured into voting for a multi-billion dollar hike in the state income tax in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. By her Democratic Party allies in Springfield.

Some of her friends and neighbors may be unhappy with the tax vote but she won’t be facing any political consequences or voter backlash. And here’s why: She stepped down as an Illinois State Representative at noon on Wednesday. After one week on the job. That’s right—one week. She was, in simple terms, the lamest lame duck in a feckless Springfield flock. A billion-dollar baby.

“She” is Kathy Moore, a Lincoln Park friend and former public school teacher who was put in that unenviable position by the stark reality of political hide-and-seek. Or, in this case, seek-and-hide. Her reliably Democratic 11th District, which includes Lincoln Park and Lakeview, elected a brand new state representative, Ann Williams, in November, to replace John Fritchey, a popular long-time rep who won election to a seat on the Cook County Board. Fritchey began his new job in December, so Williams could have been sworn in as a state rep a month ago to represent the district in the lame-duck session going on in Springfield this past week. That was her initial plan.

But there were questions about how she would vote if a tax plan was on the lame-duck agenda. Williams claims that local Democratic leaders, including Fritchey and Senate President John Cullerton, wanted her commitment to support the tax hike before arranging for her to be sworn in. They say she got cold feet and decided not to start early—choosing instead to wait until Wednesday, when the rest of the freshman legislative class was sworn in.

(That, parenthetically, will save the taxpayers a few bucks because Williams won’t qualify for a more generous legislative pension than the one awaiting the new class in Springfield, thanks to a modest pension reform bill that took effect on Jan. 1. But her decision will cost the 11th District politically because, instead of moving to the top of the seniority list of new legislators by starting in December, she will be near the bottom since she’s entering with all of the other newbies, and her last name begins with “W,” a letter near the end of the alphabet. Oh well.)

Meanwhile, back at the raunch—yes, I said raunch and not ranch—Williams’s decision not to be seated early meant the political bosses in the district—Fritchey, Cullerton and the other ward committeemen—had to find someone else to fill the seat for the one-week lame-duck session. So they recruited Kathy Moore, the wife of Tom Moore, a well-known Lincoln Park zoning lawyer—because Kathy had the time and the willingness to “serve.” And down I-55 she went. Admitting sheepishly at a party last week that “they tell me what (voting) button to push and I push it.” Democracy in action.

So when the tax bill passed, without a single vote to spare, our lawmaker-for-a-week was a major reason. She says she’s not happy about voting for a gargantuan tax increase but she doesn’t think that she, or the state, had any other choice. Even though, as of Sunday, she hadn’t seen a bill. Or a press release. Or a fact sheet. Or a list of cuts, accountability measures and streamlining to go along with the increase.

“I hope it works,” she said wistfully in a text message on Wednesday morning. Williams says, for the record, that she would’ve had a hard time supporting the tax bill in its present form.

In any event, Kathy Moore was back home in Chicago by Wednesday night after morphing into a regular resident following her week as a political pumpkin. Kind of like “Cinderella” in reverse. And she may not be the life of the cocktail parties in the neighborhood for awhile, at least among the well-healed wine-and-cheese folks who will have several-thousand fewer dollars in their pockets for each of the next four years.

As for Ann Williams, the newly elected House member, she assumed her duties as the new representative of the 11th district at noon on Wednesday. And my spies at her Springfield welcoming parties report there was no evidence of any dust, dirt or snow from the rock she’s been hiding under.

Don’t you just love the Illinois Way? And can’t you see why we love being civic watchdogs?

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Mike Madigan’s Holiday Message to Me–and Mine to Him (and You)

By Andy Shaw, BGA President & CEO

My favorite holiday missive in a season of oddball snail mail offerings comes in the form of a letter from the powerful speaker of the Illinois House, Michael J. Madigan, with whom I’ve had a rocky relationship over the years due to the often-conflicting demands and priorities of our respective vocations—me as a TV news political reporter and now a good government watchdog and MJM as a controversial political leader and tax attorney.

Oil and water, some might say, although I’ve always had a private appreciation for his wry sense of humor and offbeat charm and an oft-stated respect for his intelligence, work ethic, political skill and organizational expertise. We’ve also shared some quality time away from our respective pressure cookers, and that leads me to think that under different circumstances we could have been friends.

That may help you understand why I reacted with bemusement and curiosity to this week’s letter from the speaker in response to an erroneous solicitation for a year-end contribution to the BGA. We don’t accept money from politicians, PACs, candidates or office holders, so he shouldn’t have been on our mailing list, and his name’s been removed.

But he apparently found the solicitation letter provocative enough to send this reply:

Dear Andy: Concerning the enclosed solicitation where you state “we’re watching.” Andy, who is watching you. With kindest personal regards, I remain, sincerely, Mike.

He signs it “Mike” in the neat and methodical style that characterizes his persona.

I appreciate his endorsement of a transparent process that encourages a vast audience of Illinois residents to watch all of us—that’s the civic engagement we so desperately need to clean up the mess we call Illinois government. So I invite Mr. Speaker and everyone in Illinois to watch what we’re doing at the BGA, as we attack waste, fraud, patronage, cronyism, nepotism, pay-to-play and inside deals with every tool at our disposal—media partners, TV, radio, website and social media

I also encourage the speaker to mobilize his considerable power and expertise in concert with other political, business, labor and civic leaders to forge longterm solutions to the state’s budget and pension crises. The BGA is eager to join the discussion, and we hope that Illinois residents will be watching this process closely because no government challenge is more important as we turn the calendar on another year.

Finally, let me take this opportunity to wish Michael J. Madigan and all of you a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year and a healthy 2011 characterized by better government. It’s our right and our responsibility—we can no longer tolerate public officials who treat our hard-earned tax dollars like it’s their money. If we’re smart, aggressive, creative and, most importantly, if we walk the walk together, better government can become a reality.

So enjoy the holiday season—I’ll be back with more of “What I’m Watching” and the rest of the Shaw Blog on Jan. 3.

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Dispatch from Division: Reform Fight Takes a Party Break

By Andy Shaw, BGA President & CEO

Chicagoans beware: bell-ringers are on the prowl. (Raphael Goetter/Flickr)

I didn’t see the shakedown coming as I approached Butch McGuire’s on Division Street for the first party of the holiday season on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving. But there he was, the “perp,” wearing a Santa Claus hat and ringing a bell behind the Salvation Army kettle outside the entrance. The perp was actually my longtime colleague Thom Serafin, host of the party and public affairs consultant extraordinaire. “Andy Shaw,” he said with a trademark Cheshire cat grin on his face. “You wouldn’t want anyone to say you went in without giving, would you?” So I tossed a buck in the bucket and headed into Butch’s, thinking—behind a smile of my own—that pay-to-play is still the coin of the realm in Chicago, even in its most innocent form…

Serafin, as gracious and generous a maven as you’ll ever meet, hosts the first and one of the best parties of the holiday season, attracting an eye-popping array of movers and shakers from business, politics, media and government. Drink whatever you like for as long as you want. Nosh on mini-burgers, pizza, chicken fingers, corned beef sandwiches and corn dogs. And schmooze to your heart’s content, from one end of the packed establishment to the other. And to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, Oh, the things you see, hear and learn along the way as you catch up with friends, foes and rivals who span a professional lifetime on the Windy City scene.

From my standpoint, running the Better Government Association, it’s interesting to hear a former state senator suggest that we target the multitude of wasteful, duplicative and unnecessary units of government in Illinois. Thanks—we’re on it. Or the husband of a former Illinois state comptroller urging a closer look at the political hacks responsible for the city, state and suburban pension fiascoes. We’re there. Or a former Daley aide offering to help us hold mayoral candidates accountable. Offer accepted. Talk about a working party.

The soiree also features several candidates for mayor (sorry, Rahmbo’s a no-show), some so-close-but-not-quite ex-candidates (hello Bill Brady), former government insiders, influential lobbyists and enough TV, radio and print folks to create a potentially volatile mixture. Barbs and brickbats in bars beget bloody battles. But not on this night—the holiday spirit trumps the enmity, and everyone is on his or her best behavior.

Some of the public officials the BGA’s criticized the most for controversial hires, questionable office practices and apparent conflicts of interest—soon-to-be former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown and Board of Review member and assessor-elect Joe Berrios—are all smiles, awkward and forced perhaps, but smiles just the same—as we shake hands politely, engage in small talk and put our professional differences aside, at least temporarily. Kind of like a post-game hug or handshake between combatants who’ve tried to knock each other’s heads off during a football game. Definitely surreal, and possibly disingenuous because the disagreements are serious and real. But they don’t have to play out at a party that kicks off the holiday season.

The rest of the evening is more genuinely playful banter with old friends and colleagues. There’s former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, whose fear of flying probably cost him the 2002 Democratic nomination for governor because he didn’t spend enough time downstate, and Rod Blagojevich did. Paul now runs the Recovery School District of Louisiana, but he’s also consulting on education in Haiti and Chile. He’s in town to endorse his old Chicago School Board partner Gery Chico for mayor, and we’re thinking he might be back to run the Chicago schools again if Chico wins. Just then up walks Gery’s communications director, Brooke Anderson, on loan from the Serafin firm, to extol the virtues of Chico’s recent transparency initiative. Followed by former Chicago alderman Manny Flores, who runs the Illinois Commerce Commission when he’s not joining Brooke to extoll the virtues of Mr. Chico.

Next to sidle by is my longtime competitor on the political beat, Dick Kay, working the room like he used to late at night in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. As he goes by, I turn around to notice, sitting on a stool at a nearby table, former state senator and soon-to-be-former Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson, who was swept out by a Tea Party activist after one term in office. She tells me, with a look of relief, that she’s done with politics. “I’m out of it,” she says. We’ll see.

I also find time to check in with one of Serafin’s best clients, ageless racetrack owner Dick Duchossois, who says he’s too young to retire, especially with the prospect of slot machines at the track back on the table. He’s known fondly as “Mr. D.” I wave across the room to Serafin’s loyal lieutenant, Betsy Sales, who still hasn’t stopped celebrating the victory of her Wal-Mart clients in the most recent round of “Council Wars.” Veteran gadfly Charlie Serrano explains his umpteenth business venture in Cuba, where we joined ex-Gov. George Ryan on a fascinating news story junket in the late 1990s.

Finally a quick nod to Bruce Dold, who runs the stellar Tribune editorial page, and a brief Q&A about the news business and real life with the inseparable Bragiel sisters. And then, sad to say, I’m out of there for an appearance on FOX Chicago’s 9 p.m. news to discuss our investigative partnership story about abuse of the “Free Rides for Seniors” transit program. Reporter Dane Placko tells me he’s heading over to Butch’s after the story airs, and I think about tagging along for Round 2. But the day’s been long enough, so I opt for home.

Whether we make the news, cover it or comment on it as civic watchdogs, ours is a small world. We have different and oft-competing agendas as we go about our jobs, and we frequently disagree. Strenuously and stridently. But it doesn’t have to be disagreeable personally, and usually it’s not, which is a pleasant takeaway from a Serafin party that starts the holiday season on a perfect note. On a night when a shakedown and pay-to-play gambit produces a smile…instead of a subpoena.

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