Taxpayers have a right to know how the government is spending their money.
That’s why the Freedom of Information Act requires that all state and local financial records are open for public inspection.
While the law is good, changing the culture of government is a much bigger challenge. As a practical matter, we sometimes struggle to access financial records.
The latest example: The Lee County state’s attorney’s office.
On Oct. 30, we asked to see all records associated with an out-of-state trip in 2011, including hotels, rental cars and airfares. Ever since, we’ve been getting the runaround.
In a Nov. 6 letter, State’s Attorney Henry Dixon denied our request, saying it would compromise an investigation. Shortly after, Assistant State’s Attorney Peter Buh said he and his boss had decided to release the records.
Three weeks later, still no records.
The 5-day deadline under the Freedom of Information Act has long since passed, so we sent another email to the state’s attorney’s office to ask when we would get to see the records.
In a letter dated Nov. 20, Dee Duffy, the county’s Freedom of Information Act officer, said she must consult with Dixon before responding. But because Dixon is out of the office through the end of November, she said, “I feel I cannot respond to your request.”
In other words, we’ll never hear back from Dixon, who lost his bid for re-election on Nov. 6. His term ends Nov. 30 – this coming Friday.
So, I guess that will leave this issue in the hands of Anna Sacco-Miller, Dixon’s successor.
The Freedom of Information Act makes no allowances for officials who are gone. Records are available for inspection whether an official is there or not.
Given the latest experience, it’s increasingly doubtful we’ll see any response to our other request for public records at the state’s attorney’s office.
A couple of months ago, Dixon persuaded the Lee County Board to allow him to hire another prosecutor and clerical employee. He said he needed those employees because of a dramatic increase in homicides. Yet we wondered whether the existing clerical employees were entirely focused on the business of the state’s attorney’s office.
We have seen letters, drafted by Dixon’s secretary, that dealt with his re-election campaign – for instance, one from Oct. 1 dealing with a political column he submitted to Sauk Valley Media.
Was Dixon’s secretary directed to spend some of her time on the state’s attorney’s race?
That’s the question we would like to answer. So, on Nov. 16, we asked for all emails dealing with politics from Dixon’s and his secretary’s email accounts in the weeks leading up to the election.
No response yet.
Again, it’s well after the deadline.
Was it 267 or 297?
A couple of months ago, State’s Attorney Henry Dixon told the County Board that I had mistakenly reported that he had tried 297 jury trials in his career. He said the actual number was 267.
I tried to tell him after the meeting where I got the information. But he walked away from me.
Later, he sent a lengthy letter to higher-ups at Sauk Valley Media about the shortcomings in our coverage of his office. One of the points was the mistake about the 297 trials.
So where did I get this information? From Dixon’s own campaign website, which since has been taken down.
I make my share of mistakes, but Dixon really shouldn’t hold it against anyone for citing statistics from his own site.
David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525.