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Out Here: Officials see ‘wrong,’ ‘unfair’ reporting

Published: Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

Ogle County Board Chairman Kim Gouker is unhappy with our coverage of spending in the Ogle County Sheriff’s Department.

“The ‘big picture’ needs to be kept in mind, when seeing this kind of reporting, and realize during an election cycle, like now, creating news, instead of just reporting news, helps to sell newspapers,” he wrote in a recent guest column in this newspaper. “But it leaves an improper picture for the taxpayer.”

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: We sell papers. If we do a good job of keeping our readers informed about their community, we sell more papers.

Our readers have busy lives, so most of them don’t have the time to follow in detail what their public officials are doing with tax money. That’s where a newspaper comes in. We help our readers to keep government accountable.

Recently, we reported that the Ogle County Sheriff’s Department spent thousands on its credit card at restaurants, particularly Breakers Saloon & Eatery in Oregon. We also detailed an off-budget account for which the sheriff has wide discretion to spend, including $4,000 on a contractor to keep the department’s Facebook page updated.

We later wrote a story about how the sheriff whited out portions of the county’s credit card bills that included personal expenditures that he personally reimbursed.

I called Gouker about one bill in which an expenditure was whited out. The chairman told me that he would find out what it was about. Not long after, Gouker followed through, telling me that the sheriff had spent $267 at a restaurant in Peoria, where his in-laws live, on New Year’s Eve 2011. The sheriff reimbursed the county by sending a check to the credit card company.

Gouker then volunteered to me that a county credit card was used to buy telephones for County Coroner Louis Finch’s funeral home. The cost was $479, he said. The reimbursement for that expense appeared on the next month’s credit card bill. 

My co-worker, Matt Mencarini, who has been reporting on spending by the Ogle County Sheriff’s Department, spoke with Finch, who denied knowing the purchase had been made on the county’s credit card. He and Larry Callant, the county’s geographic information systems coordinator, were away from work and Callant offered to help Finch with a purchase.

Finch said the purchase was not for phones, but for computers for his children. Finch said he believed Callant was using his personal card, he said, and didn’t find out it was a county card until Gouker called him about it.

Callant didn’t return our call.

All of this information was reported in the newspaper.

Even though Gouker brought up Finch’s expense in the first place – I appreciated his openness – he complained in his guest column that we “unfairly included” the coroner in our story.

“The coroner never even had a county credit card, and yet, he’s included in the newspaper ‘controversy,’” Gouker wrote.

Let me get this straight: We called Gouker about the credit card controversy, and in that interview, the chairman himself brings up a personal expenditure attributed to Finch. Yet somehow we are the ones who are unfair. I don’t get it.

During a recent County Board committee meeting, Finch told members that the information “was incorrect in every sense of the word.” Was he angry with Gouker, or the newspaper, or both? The meeting minutes don’t say. (I couldn’t reach Finch for comment.)

The minutes further state: “Sheriff [Michael] Harn reiterated the comments by Finch. Sheriff Harn stated that the newspaper interviewed him for 3 1/2 hours and proceeded to report wrong information. Chairman Gouker confirmed that Sheriff Harn was not treated fairly.”

How so?

Nothing in the minutes indicates that any of the committee members asked that question. 

Our stories reflected the public record and sought the views of those concerned. These officials might not like that this public information was brought to public light. But that doesn’t make it incorrect.

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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