Rockford Register Star- Opinion Editorial, “Trying To Force Open The State’s Checkbook” by Adam Andrzejewski, CEO For The Good of Illinois
Nine months ago, our organization, For the Good of Illinois, filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking Republican Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar-Topinka to send us one year of the state’s checkbook. We were simply seeking an accounting of state expenditures so we could share that information with Illinois citizens through our online database. Our request for this information was rejected.
The comptroller asserted “review, redaction, and arrangement of all 2011 vendor payments would take multiple staff members, dedicated solely to this request, more than three days to complete.” Topinka’s office concluded that fulfilling the request was an “undue burden.”
This conclusion is not credible, and her refusal is in fact against both the spirit and the letter of the law. Is the comptroller really going to argue that in this electronic age state government can’t produce a timely and organized checkbook? Is the comptroller’s office really that much of a mess? The fact our FOIA request is being denied by the state’s top financial officer because it’s inconvenient is inexcusable. Or is Comptroller Topinka trying to hide something?
Here in Illinois, income tax rates rise as fast as 67 percent overnight and property taxes double every 10 years. You would think citizens should at least have access to detailed information showing how their tax dollars are being spent. The state’s checkbook should be “public information”.
If this “business as usual” goes unchallenged, government entities and agencies across Illinois will begin denying citizen requests. Providing such information is the essence of the Freedom of Information Act.
In fact, no other Illinois governmental entity has denied our similar FOIA requests.
Last April, we asked Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel for 10 years of the city’s checkbook. Soon after, a beautiful excel database on CD arrived at our office. The city of Chicago delivered a true checkbook — including purchase order numbers, fund accounts, department codes, check numbers, vendor names, dates, amount, etc. It covered 6.8 million checks for $74 billion spent since 2001.
For the Good of Illinois has received the vendor spending of every public Illinois college and university, with 6.8 million checks for $69 billion since 2004; 870 Illinois school districts with $52 billion since 2006; and the salaries and pensions of 1 million public employees from all levels of Illinois government. We are processing 6,900 requests of all local units of Illinois government and are now uploading those checkbooks as well. We make this data available to the public on our website, Openthebooks.com, and our mobile iAPP.
We’re not asking Comptroller Topinka to lead the charge for openness and accountability — we are simply asking her to follow the law, as did virtually every other state and local entity.
Eight months ago, we asked Democratic Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s Office of Public Access Counselor to render a legal opinion on Comptroller Topinka’s refusal to release one year’s information of the state’s checkbook.
Initially, the attorney general opened a case saying, “further inquiry is warranted.” But after a few perfunctory phone calls and letters, we’ve had five months of silence.
That is why, last week, we filed a lawsuit to enforce the law: For The Good of Illinois Inc. v. Illinois Office of Comptroller Judy-Baar Topinka. Sadly, our suit is the result of two of the biggest names in both political parties refusing to treat Illinois taxpayers and citizens with the respect they deserve and refusing to obey or enforce Illinois law.
At OpenTheBooks.com, our mission is to post online every dime taxed and spent at every level of Illinois government. It is important that taxpayers be able to follow the money and see exactly where their money goes and to whom. This information must be made public and should not take a lawsuit. If Illinois state spending is not made public, the question then must be asked, what are they hiding and why?
Adam Andrzejewski is the founder and CEO of For the Good of Illinois and was a candidate for governor in 2010.
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