Jim Dey: Andrzejewski touts power of openness

Jim Dey: Andrzejewski touts power of openness

Adam Andrzejewski is in training for a half-marathon, and he figures to be ready by April or May.

Going halvesies is a far piece from the 26.2-mile jaunts he used to take.

"I've run four Chicago marathons. But I have not run a full marathon since 2001," the 45-year-old Andrzejewski said.

That's because he has been preoccupied with a different kind of race — a non-stop effort to put all government spending (federal, state and local) from the 50 states on his OpentheBooks.com web site, just a few mouse clicks away for the average citizen.

Andrzejewski figures that within a year, he and his 10-employee team will have posted online spending from 70 percent of the country — "every dime that's taxed and spent."

In Illinois, Andrzejewski estimated it will take roughly six months to post the last six years of spending from this state's nearly 7,000 units of government. Instead of asking local units of governments for information on their financial activities, people will be able to go to OpentheBooks.com.

"Think about the power that will be available to media, ordinary citizens and watchdog groups," he said. "We'll make the lower-level financial Freedom of Information Act request obsolete."

That's big talk. But Andrzejewski has produced some pretty big results since embarking on a self-appointed mission to bring the details of government taxing and spending closer to the public.

By now, many Illinoisans are conversant with Andrzejewski's monomania for bringing the taxpayer-financed government boondoggles to public attention. He ran for governor in 2010, emphasizing spending transparency but losing in the Republican Party primary. Despite that setback, he doubled down on his effort to empower the public by enhancing its access to government spending decisions.

Since then, Andrzejewski has been tempted to re-enter the political arena. Just a couple weeks ago, he sought appointment by Gov. Bruce Rauner to replace the late Judy Baar Topinka as state comptroller.

Rauner ultimately chose former corporate executive Leslie Munger, an appointment Andrzejewski said he supports. But he said he would have relished the opportunity to use the comptroller's office to subject state contracts and spending decisions to what he calls "robust oversight" aimed at "squeezing out bloat and corrupt practices."

Open the Books has a roughly $800,000 annual budget and is supported by donations from groups and organizations. Because of his success in private business, Andrzejewski has been able to afford to run it without compensation, although he said he might start taking a salary sometime this year.

OpentheBooks.com is the largest repository of government spending records in the world, including all federal spending and checkbooks from 48 of the 50 states. He's produced special reports on spending practices by the scandal-plagued Veteran's Administration as well as the Small Business Administration. How many taxpayers realize that the SBA provided $160 million in loans to what Andrzejewski calls "private, members-only country clubs"?

Lately, he's been dealing with the consequences of taking his own advice. Andrzejewski said he's encouraged taxpayers for years to examine spending by local units of government. Rather than be accused of saying one thing and doing another, Andrzejewski decided to examine spending of a local unit of government near his home in Hinsdale, ultimately selecting at random the College of DuPage.

"It's been a lot more than I bargained for. But I'm proud of my work," he said.

What Andrzejewski discovered was a cesspool of questionable spending (a French restaurant on campus, a $1.2 million waterfall) and possible illegalities that have attracted the investigative interest of both The Chicago Tribune and the local state's attorney's office.

Board members at the community college deeply resent the unwanted oversight, six of seven of them openly hostile. But because of the discovery of excessive spending and $200 million in the college's bank account, the board reluctantly decided to freeze what had been constantly rising tuition for students and property taxes for citizens.

Public pension abuses also have become routine discoveries.

As consequences of a series of big salary increases to spike his pension, the now-retired president of Moraine Valley Community College had a final salary of $672,000. He's now collecting a pension of $330,000 from the State Universities Retirement System, a sum Andrzejewski said is "higher than all but the last three years" of his college employment.

Andrzejewski's point is pretty clear and largely inarguable. Public officials often forget for whom they work, feathering their nests at public expense and resisting full disclosure of the way they handle tax dollars.

His goal is to make it harder for public employees to pull fast ones by making it easier for ordinary people to gain access to information about how their tax dollars are spent.

In that spirit, Andrzejewski reports, Open the Book will soon have an app containing comprehensive spending information that people can download to their smartphones.

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

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