I’ve Got Corruption Fever and the Only Prescription is More Transparency

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I’m really happy to present this independent research project by our spring intern Chris MacDonald.  Chris decided to look at his home state of Illinois and its reputation for corruption.  – Nisha Thompson

Chicago probably conjures up different images for different people:  cold weather and snow, Michael Jordan and Al Capone, hot dogs and deep dish pizza and, of course, crooked politicians.

Growing up just outside Chicago, I learned to take anything a politician said with a grain of salt. But that was the culture there—a culture of corruption. It was simply expected. I remember a high school history teacher I had who was a die-hard Republican. He decided to vote for Blagojevich (Blago) because he was sure Blago would be arrested within his term and would embarrass the Democrats. Lo and behold, he was proven right.

I lived through three governor’s terms in Illinois, two of whom have been indicted. In fact, six of the last fourteen governors have been charged with crimes. The list of corrupt governors extends into the 19th century starting with Governor Joel Matteson who tried to spend $200,000 he “found” in some shoe boxes. Three other governors have been convicted of misusing funds. Former Governor George Ryan is currently serving a six year sentence for selling truck licenses to illegal immigrants. Then there’s Lego-hair himself—Blago. Lego-Haired Blago

But does any of this really matter? People that want to be corrupt will still find a way to do it. Shoeboxes will still be filled. George Ryan would still find a way to sell licenses. Blago would still find a way to sell Senate seats. Crooks will be crooks, right?

So what is it specifically about Illinois that allows for such rampant corruption year after year? What makes us so lucky? Corruption tends to thrive in situations where there is a monopoly of power (when only one person can provide a good or service, i.e. Senate seats), the leaders have unlimited discretion (lacking or not listening to their political conscience) and there is little accountability or transparency. Corruption = Monopoly + Discretion–Accountability-Transparency of Decision Making (pdf)

As citizens we may not be able to control the monopoly of power or a politician’s discretion, but it is up to us to demand accountability and transparency. The current transparency laws in Illinois are among the weakest in the nation. Transparency of information can create more accountability, but in order for this to work, citizens need access to this information. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows citizens to file requests with government agencies for information. FOIA in Illinois was recently updated to make the bold proclamation that “all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts and policies of those who represent them.” Despite this fluffy rhetoric, the law is riddled with exceptions and loopholes that ensure that Illinois’ government remains behind opaque doors.

Here are a few of the exceptions and exemptions:

  1. The government need not disclose any document that would constitute “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” This blocks any document that contains social security numbers or any personnel files of government employees.
  2. The government is allowed to deny requests of records if fulfilling that order would be “unduly burdensome.” This is, of course, extremely subjective and can be manipulated. Agencies have been known to store documents off-site or file them only in paper form, so sending them out would be “unduly burdensome.”
  3. Government need not report records “in which opinions are expressed or policies or actions are formulated” and this pertains to all “legislative documents.” Essentially, anything that has to do with law creation or the legislative process are exempt. Heck, anything that expresses an opinion is exempt.
  4. Officials do not need to report any document that is “under investigation.” This extends to any document or record that hold details of the alleged misconduct of any public official or employee.
  5. Organizations are required to respond to a request within twenty days. Often, they simply reply “we need more time.”

How can this be fixed? It seems almost impossible. While we may not be able to mend the culture of corruption that exists now, we can slowly make changes.

One of the problems is the lack of gray area when it comes to arbitration. There is no middle ground. If a citizen’s request is denied they are often given no reason or recourse. It may be that what they asked for was too broad and it would be too difficult or time-consuming for the FOI officers to fulfill the request. The only real recourse that an individual seeking information can pursue is to file a lawsuit, that is expensive and time consuming for all involved. If an open dialogue was allowed to exist, then in many cases the courts can be avoided, benefiting all involved.

Another major problem is record management. Any organization will generate tons and tons of records and their cache is ever-expanding. This can be divided among official reports, internal emails, memos, financial reports etc. It is entirely daunting and an all-but-impossible task to record and organize all of these files in such a way that you can easily fish through these later. This is at least part of the reason why there is essential ingrained failure in FOIA. The solution to this would be to make make these documents as public as possible. If this information was online, searchable, and in real time, exemptions 2 and 5 from above would certainly be subdued. The information would immediately be available to any citizen who wanted to get it. There would be less need for arbitration or FOIA officers if citizens could serve themselves.

Everyone would benefit from trying to follow the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. The exemptions are there to ensure that FOIA doesn’t weigh down or invade these organizations too much. When they are abused, their legitimate use is cheapened. If people on both sides work to cooperate in the spirit of transparency, a lot of these problems can be avoided. But that’s probably just a Kumbaya pipe dream.

While FOIA is an important tool in the transparency tool box, it is only part of the solution. Greater openness in other government databases and new disclosure methods are also necessary for true accountability. Corruption can only truly be reduced when government agencies are actively transparent as opposed to just fulfilling transparency requests.  The state-run Illinois Accountability Project is a step in the right direction, but this needs to be expanded beyond expenditures and employee records and into all government documents.

In the end, FOIA is merely a patch for a much bigger problem: where does the control lie?  We elect people to public office because we believe that they will have our best interests in mind. We do not vote on every issue, but rather vote for decision makers to make those choices for us.  However, in order to make sure that they are truly representing us we have to keep them accountable so that they don’t abuse the power we give them.  Transparency of information and FOIA are ways to improve our representative democracy and a way to wrestle back some control.

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