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Out Here: Credit card bills online?

Published: Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014 2:54 p.m. CDT

In May 2012, Anderson County, S.C., used its credit card to spend $194 at the Hilton Garden Inn and $790 for a luncheon at Tucker's Restaurant.

How do I know that? No public records request was required. Until a few months ago, the county listed its credit card spending on its website.

Anderson County was the only government entity I could find that listed its credit card expenditures on its website.

In the Sauk Valley, we have seen our share of issues with government credit card use. Last year, Dixon City Engineer Shawn Ortgiesen, essentially the city's administrator, resigned under pressure after officials discovered he had spent thousands on his city-issued credit card for personal purchases. By the time he was caught, he had reimbursed the city for only a fraction of the money. 

Recently, Sauk Valley Media's Matt Mencarini investigated the credit card spending of Ogle County Sheriff Michael Harn. Matt discovered that thousands of dollars were spent at Oregon's Breakers Saloon & Eatery, among other places.

We had to file a public records request for the credit card bills. That's more time-consuming and expensive than getting such information online. 

Over the past couple of years, the Chicago-based Illinois Policy Institute has pushed its 10-point checklist for information that governments should put online. 

That checklist says nothing about credit card bills, though after the Ortgiesen scandal, the group advised agencies to post such information.

I could find no entity in Illinois that has done so yet – not even the six that received perfect transparency scores from the institute. 

In South Carolina, open government advocates have regularly supported legislation that includes requirements to post credit card spending online. Such proposals go down in flames. 

Robert Wechsler of City Ethics, a nonprofit group, wrote in 2010 that he had become involved in his town's government in Connecticut a few years ago. His town would not even put its annual budget online. (That's also the case with the Whiteside County government.)

"It took a scandal, a daily newspaper calling the budget a lie, and my putting budget info on an alternative government website to get the budget officially put online," Wechsler wrote.

In an interview, he said citizens often have to "shame" their local politicians by posting information online themselves.

All government spending, including credit card bills, should be posted online, Wechsler said. 

"It doesn't cost anything," he said. "All of the stuff is in digital format. My credit card bill I get every month is in PDF."

With newspaper staffs in decline, Wechsler said, fewer reporters are watching over government spending, so it has become more important to place as much information as possible online.

As jurist Louis Brandeis said in 1913, "Sunshine is said to be the best of disinfectants."

David Giuliani is a news editor for Sauk Valley Media. You can reach him at dgiuliani@saukvalley.com or 800-798-4085, ext. 525. Follow him on twitter: @DGiuliani_SVM.

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