Getting information can be difficult for area citizens, officials alike
A year-long Medill Watchdog review shows the limits of open government. Armed with the Freedom of Information Act that requires state and local governments to open their records, many citizens find resistance, delay and roadblocks. Determined citizens run on platforms of changing the status quo for local boards, only to find battles to get information or to raise issues at board meetings. Statements of economic interests that elected and top appointed officials must fill out each year are not very revealing, and in many counties stored on paper in county clerk’s offices.
Medill Watchdog spent weeks in the DuPage County Clerk’s office to extract and help bring those forms to the public view. Medill Watchdog thanks Knight Foundation/News21 as well as the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and attorney Mark Ferguson for their generous support to make this examination possible.
Former gang leader, ex-Water Department supervisor among unlikely experts
By Steve Mills
Terrence Lavin seemed an ideal candidate when he ran last year for a seat on the Illinois Appellate Court.
The veteran trial lawyer had served as president of the Illinois State Bar Association and taught law school for a decade. Two years earlier he had been appointed to fill a vacancy on the appeals court, giving him a crucial edge in experience over his opponents.
Still, to leave nothing to chance, Lavin hired two campaign consultants with unlikely backgrounds: Michael Tierney, a former supervisor in Chicago’s Water Department during a scandal-ridden period in its history, and Wallace “Gator” Bradley, a colorful former high-ranking gang leader who now sells his talents as an “urban translator.”
“I approached it like I was going to try a big case. I wanted to be fully prepared for anything that might come up,” said Lavin, who won a 10-year term on the court in November. “… Once I had to deal with the electoral system, I felt I better understand it and get people who could help me understand it.”
With candidates already retaining consultants for next March’s primary election, the role these consultants play has raised increasing concern. Watchdogs who have long lamented the political nature of judicial elections fear that the growing influence of money will taint campaigns that under Illinois Supreme Court rules are supposed to focus on legal experience instead of partisan political issues.
“It’s a strange game we’re playing when we elect judges,” said Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers and a longtime critic of judicial elections. “We pretend that judges are not politicians, but we make judges go through the (political) process.”
Critics are also troubled by another all-too-common reality for political candidates, judicial hopefuls included. Candidates must make hefty contributions to the Cook County Democratic Party — usually about $30,000 apiece — in exchange for being slated, an influential endorsement in a county so heavily Democratic and one that brings an army of campaigners.
Lavin gave $35,000 to the county Democratic Party — all but $5,000 of it after he won the coveted slating.
Rich called these kinds of contributions troubling because they foster “a system that allows money to dictate who becomes a judge.”