Campbell hosted an announcement of his launching of a public corruption initiative in the Five Seasons Room at the DeKalb County Government Complex on Annie Glidden Rd. He invited elected and appointed public officials, media and the public to the event. Around 50 people attended with about half of those being public officials. WTVO-17 and FOX-39 from Rockford sent a camera crew.
According to a report by the University of Illinois-Chicago, Illinois is the 3rd most corrupt state in the union. Some residents of the prairie state find those rankings shocking. How can there be two states more corrupt than Illinois. Quick, when was the last time we had a governor not convicted of something? The state loses a half a billion dollars a year due to corruption for personal financial gain. It’s easy to envision exponentially more waste of needed public dollars in the culture of Illinois politics that embraces pay-to-play and back door meetings.
“I’m not sure if this was a political stunt to get publicity,” said Smith, after the session ended, “or if there is any substance behind it.”
Campbell appointed one of his top assistants, staff attorney Victor Escarcida as the head of the anti-public corruption program. Campbell said there are no ongoing investigations but he said he was aware of published concerns in the county such as allegations that the DeKalb Public Library and the City of DeKalb did not comply with the Illinois Local Library Act, issues with speeding tickets in Kirkland and questionable tax assessments in Kirkland township. His intent is to be proactive in the fight against public corruption and urged government officials, employees and citizens to blow the whistle when they think something is wrong. Citizens should report those concerns by calling 815-895-7164 or visiting the new website at dekalbcountysao.org.
Lynn Fazekas suggested that Campbell put into practice what he has been preaching. She asked if he was willing to go on record to state whether he would ask the Attorney General for a binding opinion on the matter of the DeKalb Public Library and the Illinois Local Library Act.
“If I received information as you described that would indicate to me that an opinion from the Attorney General would be warranted I would have no problem at all making that referral,” said Campbell. “That’s her job and that’s my responsibility.”
Campbell also said he would prosecute violations of the Open Meeting Act. Doing so would separate him from most other State’s Attorneys in Illinois.
In 2008 while Natalie Brouwer Potts monitored local government bodies for legal compliance with state open government laws she helped draft a publication titled Accessing Government: How Difficult Is It? (Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center 2008) (with T. Pastika), a systemic overview of open government laws with recommended statutory and policy reforms for Illinois and four additional states.
Illinois received an “F” on transparency issues related to its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Open Meetings Act (OMA) practice and enforcement. Analysis concluded that the county state’s attorneys in the state, along with the judges on the bench need to do their jobs if transparency is to improve in Illinois:
Enforcement is weak. While the state’s attorneys have the ability to prosecute OMA violations, they almost never do. The Illinois Office of the Attorney General has established a Public Access Counselor’s (PAC) office to take an active role in assuring that public bodies understand the requirements of open government laws conduct their business openly and that the public has access to the governmental information to which they are entitled. While the PAC has no punitive authority, it responds to resident’s complaints and occasionally refers OMA matters to the appropriate state’s attorney for investigation.
Penalties for Violation Civil and criminal penalties are available for OMA violations. A civil lawsuit may be filed by any private individual or the state’s attorney of the county in which a violation occurred. The lawsuit must be filed within 60 days after the meeting alleged to have been held in violation of the law, or within 60 days of the discovery of a violation by the appropriate state’s attorney. Mandamus and injunction are available. Criminal penalties are limited to Class C misdemeanor charges, which are punishable by a fine of up to $1,500 and imprisonment for up to 30 days.
Criminal charges may only be initiated by the appropriate State’s Attorney.
Campbell’s bold move could be a catalyst for sunshine law enforcement. It’s needed. According to Campbell, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, is the only office in Illinois fighting public corruption. While Illinois ranks 3rd as the most corrupt state Chicago and Northern Illinois including DeKalb County is alone at the top as far as most corrupt region nationally. Sunshine laws must be enforced. Violators must be prosecuted.
“It is not a defense to say that you don’t know the law or that you did not understand it,” said Campbell.
Just a couple of years back the DeKalb Public Library purchased with contingencies property from the DeKalb Clinic which included the old downtown clinic and A&P grocery store buildings. The contract was approved in closed session. The Daily Chronicle took exception. DeKalb County Online filed for a request for review of numerous potential OMA violations including the closed session contract, meeting with independent contractors in closed session and discussing the library’s tax levy in closed session. The PAC ruled the request for review legitimate. Then State’s Attorney John Farrell proactively met with the library’s attorney and brokered an arrangement with the library board. A decree was signed by Judge Kurt Klein that found the DeKalb Public Library Board of Trustees had violated the OMA but Klein commented that the Open Meetings Act was too complicated for good folks like the library board to follow.
Natalie Brouwer Potts is currently the director of the Center for Open Government, which is housed in the Chicago-Kent Law Offices. She works closely with Chicago-Kent law students in the Center for Open Government Clinic to advise and represent citizens who seek legal assistance in advancing government transparency and accountability. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago, spent four years studying and teaching undergraduates in a political science Ph.D. program at Indiana University (Bloomington), and received her J.D. from Cornell Law School.
Potts has written the Illinois Attorney General Public Access Counselor office to request a review of the City of DeKalb for possibly violating the Open Meetings Act due to earlier violations of the Illinois Library Act. Her letter cites the IICLE Special Districts publication (Section 7.04) in arguing that DeKalb Public Library should have obtained city council approval for its expansion plans and funding mechanisms before the land purchase, but City of DeKalb’s justification for claiming exemptions from these requirements likewise cites this source (PDF pp. 177-181). [MUST SEE: CityBarbs Report]
DeKalb Mayor Kris Povlsen asked if there was a laundry list of public corruption because in his long career in public service there has not been a single incident of public corruption or misdoings in the City of DeKalb. He suggested the problem is more about a group of citizens looking to become the next Woodward or Bernstein.
“What grabs the headlines are the people who want to besmirch the public officials,” Povlsen said.
Campbell has opened the jar. If he remains proactive in the fight against public corruption he’ll put DeKalb County on the map as a beacon for good government. But as he said there is a long way to go. The culture of corruption is so prevalent that it goes largely unnoticed. Good projects must follow the law. Good people must follow the law. The only way to bring Illinois government out of the back room meetings is sunshine and county state’s attorneys committed to enforcing those laws.