Forbes: Watchdogs in Illinois Money33

November 5, 2014 06:30 AM


By Adam Andrzejewski

Two regular guys from Southern Illinois, Kirk Allen and John Kraft, became folk heroes after lawfully “citizen arresting” their park district board. Now, their fight against corruption threatens to shake the political establishment. 

Illinois’ number one manufactured product is corruption. More than 95 percent of the Illinois legislature is safe in gerrymandered districts. The incumbent governor has three current federal investigations of his administration, but the Attorney General/state’s attorney class can’t find public vice anywhere. 

So what can the law abiding citizen do? The answer is coming from some regular guys in southern Illinois who decided to hold public officials accountable. They call themselves the “Watchdogs.”

Kirk Allen and John Kraft live in Edgar County which may be the most corrupt county in the country. For a couple of watchdogs, it’s a target rich environment.

In 1985, New York prosecutor Rudy Giuliani indicted the local pizza owner during the mob “Pizza Connection” prosecutions. For twenty years, State trooper Michale Callahan staked his career on reversing the false double-murder convictions of Randy Steidl and Herb Whitlock and became a local legend. In a county of only 18,000 residents, just four units of government have amassed $79 million of bonded debt.

During the summer, the Watchdogs used a little known provision of law to “citizen arrest” an entire unit of government. The story was featured on Chicago broadcast news and garnered the front page in most downstate daily newspapers.

Mr. Allen and Mr. Kraft are unlikely watchdogs. Neither are lawyers. Neither are wealthy individuals – their Edgar County Watchdog organization is a non-profit. And neither have a law enforcement background, although both served in the military.

Yet, in just 22 months their exposure has caused more than 100 public and elected officials to flee or resign their positions. They also beat IL Assistant Attorney General Emma Steimel pro se (they represented themselves) to open the books on state emails.

Despite the institutional forces arrayed against them, the Watchdogs have exposed 33 Edgar County based public officials who eventually resigned or no longer serve in their posts-  including the county board chairman, multi-township property tax assessor, airport manager (and entire airport board), the Shiloh superintendent – revealing a conviction in Cook County for misdemeanor sexual battery, the Redmond mayor – who moved out of town and thought he could still serve as mayor, the Kansas fire department attorney, and many others.

The Watchdogs anti-corruption toolbox features an “exposure” website, insistence on freedom of information, pro se lawsuits, public comment at open meetings, earned media, and motivating hundreds of local citizens to attend board meetings. It may be the most effective watchdog model in the nation.

Now, they’re taking their honed, good government show on the road. With their reputation preceding them, fast victories have been notched in neighboring towns. 

For example, in Albion, the entire leadership of the fire department resigned after the Watchdogs stopped the board from holding an illegal vote on contracts to conflicted parties. In Effingham, after just one public comment followed by one Freedom of Information Act request, the health department administrator tried to resign but was instead fired by the board. In Ford-Iroquois County, the health department was disbanded after the Watchdogs pushed an investigation into an alleged $4 million federal flood grant fraud, public credit cards used for private beer and gasoline purchases, and substantial gift card employee compensation which circumvented payroll taxes.

They even recently exposed a superintendent – a candidate running for the state house – who racked up $5,000 on the school credit card at fast food restaurants.

The Watchdogs live by Dillon’s Rule – a principle from a famous 1868 case that says government only has the power granted by law. As the Watchdogs argue, in the absence of a legal basis, government power is limited. Public bodies are asked to prove that public funds, property or credit are only being used only for public purposes (Article 8 Section 1 of Illinois Constitution). Trusting government to act in the public’s interest isn’t good enough. They require proof and verification.

Sadly, the Watchdogs don’t get much help from state or local law enforcement agencies. The top cop in Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, has sat on one “request for review” of the Watchdogs for two and a half years, another “request for review” is more than one year old, and has refused to prosecute cases.

Yet, at the federal level, the federal Office of Inspector General, Federal Bureau of Investigations, and Department of Energy have opened investigations based on the Watchdog’s information. Grand juries have been convened, and subpoenas issued.

In the 1990’s, Mayor Rudy Giuliani cleaned up New York City by establishing order on the city streets. Giuliani applied the “Broken Windows” theory that says cleaning up – or policing – the little things makes dealing with the big things – and more serious crime – much easier. The Watchdogs are applying this theory to the Illinois political class. 

Can it work in Illinois?

Allen and Kraft are off to a good start. They have 102 resignations – and counting. By focusing on the little acts of corruption that litter Illinois’ political landscape, they are forcing very big reforms.

Note: Adam Andrzejewski is the Chairman of American Transparency, founder of the transparency website Visit the Watchdogs at




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