On our most recent podcast, Peter and Eric introduce you to two unlikely muckrakers who take local corruption very seriously. And there are about 560 former officials in Illinois who have seen the business end of that seriousness.
Meet John Kraft and Kirk Allen. On the most recent show, we highlight the dogged work and relentless digging of the Edgar County (Illinois) watchdogs. Peter first met them six years ago.
Kraft and Allen are today both members in good standing of the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and the Chicago Headline Club, but neither gentleman is a career journalist. One is retired from the US Army. The other retired from the US Air Force to his family’s farm and also serves as chief of the local volunteer fire department. But together, Kraft and Allen have, as their retirement crusade, taken on local corruption and sometimes just plain old incompetence in public business.
They have forced 560 elected officials to either resign or face charges for corruption in Edgar County and other parts of Illinois. How did they get started?
“I went to a local board meeting, and they lied to me. They didn’t know the state laws. They just did what they had always done,” Kraft tells Peter and Eric.
Citizen journalism is a high calling, but as Peter notes, you don’t have to be a high-powered attorney or accounting genius to do the work of scrutinizing how local officials do the things they do, sometimes in complete ignorance of state and county open meetings laws, transparency laws, and conflict-of-interest regulations.
What are some of John’s and Kirk’s takeaways from their work so far?
“Whatever unit of government you’re looking at, read the codes and understand the ‘rulebook’ for how they are supposed to conduct public business,” Allen says. “Often, the officials themselves don’t even know these rules or the laws.”
“Then, just show up to the public meetings and sit there. Officials act differently when people are there in the room,” he adds.
“The vast majority of those we have outed are just pure problems,” Kraft says, “but you can tell a lot based on their reactions to the problems we raise and the violations we uncover. Either they get defensive, or they are shocked” when you present them with what the law says.
During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker started issuing executive orders, but they had nothing to do with COVID. One was to delay the licensing requirements for medical marijuana. “We proved JB Pritzker couldn’t do what he did, but he did it anyway until someone sued over it,” Allen said. “All’s we did was read the statute.”
As Peter and Eric note, Pritzker’s cousin, Jobe, is an investor in the medical marijuana industry.
Eric asks if Kraft and Allen have any thoughts about “outrage fatigue.” Not really. “During the COVID investigations,” Kraft says, “we had more than three million people following our site.”
When the masking mandates went into effect in schools, Kraft says, “we went to local school board meetings, and I asked the school nurses whether they knew how to identify hypoxia. The school nurses had no idea what that was. When you have kids falling asleep after four hours it’s because of limited oxygen intake, which can happen because of the masks they had to wear.”
So often, they have seen, local officials appeal to authority – “I know, and you don’t.” But they have been surprised how ignorant many of these officials turn out to once presented with the specifics of the laws they are supposed to follow and facts that run counter to the received narratives they are pressing to uphold.
So, what do they recommend for people who want to do what they do in their own local communities?
Number one, learn to ask, “Says who? And “Where’s your proof?”
They have done free training seminars for other citizens who want to get started and have had some nice successes training others elsewhere to do what they have done so effectively in Illinois. They have held training seminars for as many as a hundred people. “No charge. We show up and give them a 4-hour seminar.”
One attendee was a CPA from Bloomington, Indiana named Diane Benjamin who was concerned about corruption in her town. She investigated the finances of the city’s new sports arena and found there were no commissions being paid by the arena’s vendors to the city[meaning they kept the commissions for themselves, or paid off officials?]. She filed a handwritten lawsuit (later she had to type it) to get the records. She ended up prevailing, got the records and the state police filed criminal complaints. Ultimately there were 111 indictments, and six officials of the sports complex were convicted. All this happened because of one woman who went to the meetings and asked the questions and went where the story led her.
“People tell us they appreciate what we do,’ says Kraft. “We do get occasional threats, but we don’t take them seriously. We publish the public records we write about.”
How can people contact you?
“Visit our website and send us a message. Illinoisleaks.com Be sure to let us know what unit of government you are talking about. That’s very important,” Kraft said.
As Peter closes the show, “Do not be discouraged. You can fight the system, and you can win.”