Published: January 6, 2012
Soon after I returned to Chicagoland last winter to direct the Medill Watchdog at Northwestern University, I started hearing something that surprised me: Instances of elected officials working as paid lobbyists for private interests. It seemed an ideal topic for the debut of an undertaking devoted to the systemic examination of societal flaws, Why? Because it demonstrated a pattern of conduct at odds with the idealized version of democracy we all learned in civics class, and one that could only be documented by going through thousands of records. That kind of review takes time and careful attention by reporters, both in short supply in our 24/7 news cycles, but well-suited to a team of talented students who could, by working cooperatively, take on the kind of comprehensive examinations that provide a bona fide public service.
Over the next several months, student Watchdog interns selected from Medill and other Northwestern schools within the university reviewed statements of economic interests filed by public officials, as well as electronic lobbyist’s registration records in Chicago, Cook County, and the State of Illinois. Working together, the students learned to use public records databases, court records, and a variety of other public records to undertake in-depth research. Before long, they identified not only a group of officials at all levels of governments who were also registered as lobbyists; but also the names of lobbyists who turned out to be spouses, children, parents, and siblings and business partners of the elected officials.
To identify instances in which officials appeared to be acting on matters of special interest to their private clients or the clients of their relatives, we reviewed legislative transcripts and board minutes from the county and municipalities. Under the supervision of myself and Associate Director John Sullivan, the interns joined us in examining how often officials abstained from voting as well as instances when officials pushed the legislation without mentioning their conflicts. We talked to experts in government ethics, to officials in other states, and to many elected officials – both those who lobby, and those who serve alongside them. We studied the Illinois law, and compared laws in other places, finding many states more restrictive.
The result is the type of Medill Watchdog investigation that we hope will help the community understand complex issues and hold officials accountable.
As we do this work, we welcome your feedback on our work and your thoughts and ideas about other accountability issues that should be examined. We hope our reports ultimately help make the community stronger, and we welcome you as our partners in that effort.