Throughout 2013, we at Medill Watchdog have conducted our project of “Judging the Judges” by studying the problems created by 15 county subcircuits that were created, to help assure diversity among members of the judiciary. The series by WGN Investigates and Medill Watchdog will show that the subcircuit system has led to the election of more judges who failed to win positive evaluations by bar groups, and to several subcircuit judges serving from subcircuits where they may not even live.
We start our series on Dec. 1. Come back Dec. 2 to Dec. 5 for more.
By Lily Oberman
To see the problem with state forms supposed to reveal conflicts-of-interests by public officials, look no further than former Country Club Hills police chief Regina Evans and her husband Ronald.
Police Chief Evans and her husband, the city’s former inspector general, pleaded guilty this month to charges related to skimming state grant money paid to a non-profit corporation they ran, diverting it to their own businesses and personal use.
But nowhere on the form that Regina Evans filed each year did she report that she ran a non-profit or that she co-owned private businesses. Instead, she listed “none” for every question on the form. And her husband, the inspector general, didn’t fill out the form at all.
Regina Evans was not mandated to disclose her outside business interests on the forms she filed, since neither the non-profit nor the theatre that she and her husband ran did business with Country Club Hills. And as inspector general, Ronald wasn’t among the city officials required to fill out the form.
The Evans’ case is not unique. The forms filed each year by thousands of elected and top appointed officials in government units throughout Illinois – forms that are supposedly designed to reveal potential conflicts of interests – are filled with loopholes that leave them completely ineffective, a continuing Medill Watchdog review shows. The forms, required to be filed each May 1 by elected and appointed officials from village offices to the governor’s office, leave Illinois residents largely in the dark about financial holdings that could create potential conflicts, as Medill Watchdog reported in June.
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.”