Jim Dey: Open the Books opens whole new world to taxpayers
Nobody knows better than Adam Andrzejewski that politics is a numbers game.
In 2010, he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for government, and on primary election night the numbers told him he lost.
Now with a new race for the Republican nomination for governor underway, the 44-year-old Andrzejewski (pronounced Angie-F-Ski) is knee deep in numbers once again. But he's not running for governor or anything else.
Andrzejewski has taken on a bigger job. The retired businessman's mission is to "post online every dime taxed or spent at the federal, state and local level across the country."
Ambitious? Sure is.
But Andrzejewski said that he and his crew have already posted roughly one-third of this mammoth trough of financial information on their website at OpentheBooks.com. He predicts the work will be "95 percent there ... in the next 12 months."
"From the federal to state to local government, the Books are Open. Search salary, pension and spending databases by state," OpentheBooks.com proclaims.
The site already is drawing significant attention. Andrzejewski wrote a May op-ed article about it for The Wall Street Journal. After he appeared on John Stosssel's Fox News program in September, OpentheBooks.com drew 80,000 people the following week and generated 750,000 page views.
What's the point?
"The great debate at every level of government is where to cut spending, and you cannot cut what you cannot see," he said.
Andrzejewski said he's trying to spotlight "waste, fraud and the legal, but stupid, spending."
He already has. When in 2012 OpentheBooks.com publicized Robert Healy's one-year pay boost from $163,000 to $295,000, people wondered what was up with the treasurer of the Lyons Township Trustees of Schools.
The answer was plenty. In August, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez indicted Healy on charges of theft and official misconduct. Not only did Healy improperly boost his pay without permission, as snoozing trustees stated, but Healy had been stealing large sums of money for years.
Authorities allege that Healey took $1.5 million over 20 years.
As the Chicago Tribune noted in a subsequent editorial, not only was no one watching Healy perform his job, but the taxpayers don't even need the township office where he worked.
Because Andrzejewski represents unwanted oversight for public officials, they often either ignore or reject his Freedom of Information requests.
State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka denied an FOIA request from OpentheBooks.com for a digital copy of the state's checkbook for 2013. She said producing it would be unduly burdensome. He sued. She lost her effort to keep public information from the public, and not just from 2013. Andrzejewski plans to post the state's checkbooks going back to 1996.
But at least Topinka had the decency to respond to Andrzejewski's FOIA. He said he recently sent FOIA requests for salary and pension information to 80 fire and police districts in Illinois.
"Sixty of the 80 willfully ignored them," he said. "We have been so busy we haven't followed up yet. But we will."
This kind of work requires time, tenacity and resources. But Andrzejewski has all three.
The resources are being provided by donors. The time and tenacity come by dint of a successful background in business.
In 1997, he and his brother founded Home Pages Directories, which was aimed at taking Yellow Pages advertising away from the big telephone companies. Based on research that indicated 95 percent of purchases are made at businesses within 5 miles of an individual's home, they sold advertising space for small-town telephone directories.
Andrzejewski said it was slow going for a long time and "my wife was getting very impatient."
"For the first six years in business, every single employee outearned my brother and me," he recalled.
After years of hard work, the business boomed.
Andrzejewski sold his share to his brother and other investors in 2007. Rather than retire to a landed-gentry lifestyle, he organized a good government group and has devoted his interests and energy to cleaning up government corruption in Illinois, first by running for public office and then working to put public financial information in a place where people can easily get it.
OpentheBooks.com is broken down into three categories:
— Federal spending. Andrzejewski plans to post federal spending back to 2000. It will include a salary history of 2.5 million federal employees, farm subsidies, contracts, loans and grants.
— States. He has posted financial information on 40 of the 50 states that includes employee salary and pension information as well as spending on a wide variety of programs.
— Local governmental units. There are thousands across the country, roughly 7,000 in Illinois alone. Many of them, like township governments, operate in almost complete secrecy and are subject to widespread abuse by unaccountable officials.
In addition to the website, Andrzejewski also has put out an app — Open the Books — that is free on Apple and Droid platforms.
Some might consider collecting and posting this kind of information to be drudgery. Andrzejewski says it's "exhilarating."
"I get up every day at 4 a.m., and I'm tired when I hit the pillow," he said.
Andrzejewski remains intensively interested in politics, but he says he is content to stay behind the scenes for the time being. He said he wants to be seen as a "straight shooter who tells the truth" about taxing and spending and that he'll worry about electoral politics later.
"I'm young and not ruling out a run for office in the future," he said. "But it's not in the cards ... I may not be on the ballot for a decade."
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 351-5369.