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Force open state’s checkbook

Comptroller errs in not releasing spending report

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 1:15 a.m. CST
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Adam Andrzejewski

Nine months ago, our organization, For the Good of Illinois, filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking Republican Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka to send us one year of the state’s checkbook.

We were simply seeking an accounting of state expenditures so we could share that information with Illinois citizens through our online database.

Our request was rejected.

The comptroller asserted “review, redaction and arrangement of all 2011 vendor payments would take multiple staff members, dedicated solely to this request, more than three days to complete.” Topinka’s office concluded that fulfilling the request was an “undue burden.”

This conclusion isn’t credible, and her refusal is against both the spirit and letter of the law. Is the comptroller really going to argue that, in this electronic age, state government can’t produce a timely and organized checkbook?

The fact our FOIA request is being denied by the state’s top financial officer because it’s inconvenient is inexcusable. Or is Comptroller Topinka trying to hide something?

Citizens should have access to detailed information showing how their tax dollars are being spent. The state’s checkbook should be “public information.” If this “business as usual” goes unchallenged, government entities and agencies will begin denying citizen requests. 

In fact, no other Illinois governmental entity has denied our similar FOIA requests.

Last April, we asked Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for 10 years of the city of Chicago checkbook. Soon after, an Excel database on CD arrived – including purchase order numbers, fund accounts, department codes, check numbers, vendor names, dates, amount, etc. It covered 6.8 million checks for $74 billion spent since 2001.

For the Good of Illinois has received the vendor spending of every public Illinois college and university, with 6.8 million checks for $69 billion since 2004; 870 Illinois school districts with $52 billion since 2006; and salaries and pensions of one million public employees.

We’re processing 6,900 requests of all local units of Illinois government and uploading those checkbooks. We make this data available to the public on our website, OpenTheBooks.com, and our mobile iAPP.

Eight months ago, we asked Democratic Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s Office of Public Access Counselor to render a legal opinion on Comptroller Topinka’s refusal. Initially, the attorney general opened a case, saying, “... further inquiry is warranted.” But after a few perfunctory phone calls and letters, we’ve had 5 months of silence.

We filed a lawsuit to enforce the law: For The Good of Illinois Inc. v. Illinois Office of Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka. Sadly, our suit is the result of two of the biggest names in both political parties refusing to treat Illinois taxpayers and citizens with the respect they deserve and refusing to obey or enforce Illinois law.

At OpenTheBooks.com, our mission is to post online every dime taxed and spent at every level of Illinois government. This information must be made public and should not take a lawsuit.

If Illinois state spending isn’t made public, the question then must be asked, What are they hiding, and why?

Note to readers – Adam Andrzejewski is the CEO for the nonprofit For The Good of Illinois Inc.

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