Jim Dey: Watchdog follows money, irritates powerful

Jim Dey: Watchdog follows money, irritates powerful

Hear more from Dey Thursday at 10 on WDWS.

Adam Andrzejewski is on a roll.

A self-appointed watchdog of how taxpayer dollars are spent, he recently reported some stunning facts that are making him enemies in high places.

He took on all-powerful Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan by pointing out that Madigan's wife, Shirley, is the chairman of the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency that didn't meet between August 2014 and October 2016 while continuing to pay out "state grants, salaries and operational expenses."

Andrzejewski said — tongue planted firmly in cheek — that Illinois' attorney general should investigate that highly irregular situation. Don't hold your breath — Lisa Madigan, daughter of Shirley and Mike, is Illinois' longtime attorney general.

Andrzejewski (pronounced Angie-F-Ski) kicked over another hornet's nest when he recently reported that even as the state flirts with junk bond status and is effectively bankrupt, there are "63,000 government employees" who are "bringing home six-figure salaries and higher."

"We found auto pound supervisors in Chicago making $144,453; nurses at state (prisons) earning up to $254,781; junior college presidents making $465,420; university doctors earning $1.6 million: and 84 small-town 'managers' out-earning every U.S. governor," he said.

A candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in 2010, Andrzejewski set aside his political ambitions to oversee a financial oversight organization called Open the Books. He also works with the Edgar County Watchdogs, another oversight group that sticks its nose in places where government officials don't like people to look.

Combining those efforts with his role as a columnist in Forbes' online magazine, Andrzejewski has brought some powerful entities to their knees by exposing wasteful spending.

The first to fall was the College of DuPage, which fired its president and saw a huge, voter-mandated turnover in board members after Open the Books started publicizing the college's spending practices.

Open the Books drew national attention when it reported that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was spending millions of dollars on art work while veterans died waiting for medical services.

But going after the Madigan family's deep connections in government at all levels may be Andrzejewski's biggest target yet.

Calling Shirley Madigan the "matriarch of the most powerful political family in Illinois," Andrzejewski points out that she has served on the Illinois Arts Council since 1976 and been chairwoman since 1983. Even though her term on the council recently expired, along with those of 12 other board members, Shirley Madigan will retain her seat until a successor is named by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Would Rauner dare not re-appoint Speaker Madigan's wife? It depends on how close to the sun he wants to fly.

Funny thing about this government body that's spending taxpayer dollars, it rarely meets.

"Instead of holding tri-annual meetings — as they've pledged to do — the council never met during the entire fiscal year of 2016," Andrzejewski reports.

The Edgar County Watchdogs wanted to know more about the arts council's activities and filed Freedom of Information requests seeking board documents. The requests were summarily rejected, forcing the watchdogs to file a lawsuit seeking compliance.

In addition to not meeting, the arts council oversaw awards to wealthy organizations affiliated with its board members — leading to "40 vote abstentions."

"Largely, taxpayer funding wasn't awarded to 'starving artists,' but to well-connected entities with political clout," including the Field Museum, the Goodman Theatre and Loyola University in Chicago and the University of Chicago, Andrzejewski said.

Chicago's Lyric Opera has received $503,000 since 2012.

Andrzejewski's report on public employee salaries and pensions also target some high political fliers.

He noted that former Gov. Jim Edgar receives a state pension of $20,106 per month. But he said less well-known public employees are paid lavish salaries that produce eye-popping pensions.

They include "nearly 30,000 teachers and administrators" who earns salaries of $100,000-plus, employees of private entities who "muscled their way into the government (pension) systems, public employees whose salaries are spiked or padded with bonuses to boost pension payments as they approach retirement.

All told, Andrzejewski reports that government at all levels is spending as if there is no tomorrow, even though tomorrow already has arrived in terms of state finances.

"Bloated public payrolls and highly compensated public employees are a statewide problem," said Andrzejewski, who indicated that the collective costs are "unsustainable."

He's right, of course. But how many times has that warning been sounded just in the last year alone?

Legislators clearly aren't paying attention — their only response to the state's financial troubles was passing a budget that includes record-setting spending, higher taxes and an enthusiastic embrace of the self-destructive political status quo.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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