Jim Dey: Tax watchdog continues digging on spending questions

Jim Dey: Tax watchdog continues digging on spending questions

Taxpayer watchdog Adam Andrzejewski's ride on a tidal wave of tax money continues to take him to the most unexpected of places.

This summer, the founder of OpentheBooks.com was a guest on the C-SPAN network program "Q&A" hosted by Brian Lamb, where he was asked about the organization's goal of tracking how the government spends federal, state and local dollars.

The 48-year-old Andrzejewski (pronounced Angie-EF-ski) described the interview as a "great experience" that generated a "lot of money in donations" for his organizations.

Just last week, he was the keynote speaker of the 2017 Governor's Business Forum in Cheyenne, Wyo., talking about the dynamic changes that can be wrought when the public discovers how and where its money is spent.

Even though he communicates directly with the public through newspaper commentaries or his regular articles in Forbes magazine, the public also hears indirectly from him through reports of wasteful or curious spending practices he has brought to the attention of news outlets.

This past summer, Chicago newspapers were filled with reports about excessive employer overtime costs paid by the financially beleaguered city, including the news that "more than 160 employees of the streets and sanitation department made over $100,000 a year."

While Andrzejewski's forums may change, his goal remains the same. He and his organization are devoted to reporting every dime of federal, state and local spending online — "every dime, online, in real time," as he puts it.

Spending is listed at USAspending.gov and OpentheBooks.com. He said that federal spending has been reported since 2006 and that his organization now reports all the state and local spending of 47 out of 50 states. The three states that have eluded reporting to him are Wyoming, California and North Carolina.

Right now, Andrzejewski is working on Wyoming, where he has submitted 800 freedom-of-information requests that cover every level of spending in the state.

He said his blanket request has "created quite a stir," including opposition from the state auditor and enthusiastic support from Gov. Matt Mead.

"Historically, Wyoming gets an F in transparency. We are helping to move the state to an A," Andrzejewski said.

He said the organization is reluctant to try to achieve its goal through litigation, which is costly and time-consuming. Instead, Andrzejewski said he's trying to "work out the differences" with Wyoming's auditor through negotiation and compromise, just as he did with late Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka.

But he said many public officials remain as reluctant to embrace spending transparency as they ever were, their operating theory being that whatever the public doesn't know can't hurt them.

They're definitely correct to be concerned.

OpentheBooks' report that the federal Department of Veterans Affairs spent $20 million on artwork while veterans waited weeks or months for promised medical treatment sparked congressional inquiries and apologies from embarrassed VA bureaucrats.

Just a few weeks ago, OpentheBooks generated more controversy when it reported that federal government agencies were on a "'use it or lose it' spending frenzy" as they approach the end of the federal fiscal year. It reported more than $11 billion in spending that included $79,000 in alcoholic beverages for 10 American embassies, an armored vehicle for the secretary of Health and Human Services and many millions of dollars spent by a variety of agencies on "self-promotion" activities.

That's enough to keep anyone busy. But on a personal note, Andrzejewski said he achieved a personal goal of running and completing the Chicago Marathon in October. He said it was his sixth marathon.

From bad to worse

The life of St. Clair County Circuit Judge Ronald Duebbert is going from bad to worse.

Already under investigation for alleged obstruction of justice in a murder case, the judge was charged earlier this month with felony criminal sexual abuse for allegedly offering to reduce his fee in exchange for sexual favors from a client.

Duebbert has denied allegations of wrongdoing in both cases, charging that he's a victim of political dirty tricks by the county's Democratic Party establishment. He said that he's a target for retaliation because he's a gay Republican who defeated a veteran incumbent Democratic judge in the 2016 election.

The 55-year-old Duebbert pleaded innocent in St. Clair County Court during a recent appearance where he was charged with criminal sexual abuse, intimidation, battery and solicitation of a sexual act.

The charges were filed by the state's appellate prosecutor's office.

The charges in the solicitation cases, for now at least, overshadow a second investigation also being conducted by the state appellate prosecutor.

That case involves alleged obstruction of justice in connection with statements Duebbert gave to police about his contacts with a male friend, 20-year-old David Fields, who was charged in a Dec. 30 home invasion and murder.

Following the November election, Duebbert was sworn in as a judge in December. But he has been barred by Chief Judge Andrew Gleeson from presiding in court because of ethical concerns that were raised after it was disclosed that Duebbert allowed Fields, a parolee charged in the murder case, to live with him.

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.