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Second Opinion: Official silence prompts public skepticism

Published: Saturday, April 19, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

Famed Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein once described the job of journalists as trying to get information that other people don’t want them to have.

People who keep government records often make them difficult to obtain (they are public records, you know), and people with information often refuse to talk or otherwise make themselves unavailable.

Undeterred, journalists look for other sources or, too often, have to “write around” the lack of information and explain that the people who know would not cooperate.

And, eventually, that information is found out. You can’t hide the truth forever.

Just ask Rita Crundwell. (More on her later.)

REPORTERS AND editors of this newspaper don’t know as much as they wish they did.

And they usually know less than they’re assumed to know.

That’s why our small staff depends on the eyes and ears of readers to help us keep up with things throughout the Sauk Valley.

We are grateful for a tip this past Monday about the arrest of Sterling firefighter on a charge of sexual abuse.

By the time we heard about it, the arrest was 5 days old.

That’s a good lesson in journalism: Authorities let the media know the things they want the media to know.

That’s why we question. That’s why we seek to verify with a second or third source.

When we asked Monday about the arrest, we received a news release that obviously had been prepared days earlier.

At the top of the report were the words “For release upon inquiry.”

In other words, if the newspaper doesn’t ask us, we won’t tell them.

We would prefer that public officials and public figures be more forthcoming with public information.

Must have been a reason the city didn’t want us to know about the arrest of a city firefighter.

Do you think you would be afforded that same courtesy?

SEVEN WEEKS AFTER the shooting death of a 15-year-old Rock Falls High School student, the public still doesn’t know much about the circumstances.

Police were quick that day to determine the death was accidental. They’ve been considerably slower to explain how they came to that conclusion so soon. If the case were so cut-and-dried, why has the investigation dragged on?

Such silence creates an information void where rumor and conjecture move in, and the fact that the shooting occurred in the home of a state trooper feeds public skepticism about a dual system of justice.

Authorities invite that skepticism – and worse – by withholding factual information that, experience tells us, isn’t nearly so bad as the gossip their reticence encourages.

We cannot forget that this is the same county – with a different state’s attorney – where the son of a former state policeman was a jailer who got caught stealing inmates’ prescription drugs.

The jailer was never charged with a crime, and the public was never provided an explanation for that decision not to prosecute.

That’s no way to foster public trust in government generally and the justice system specifically.

Hard to argue that public skepticism – even cynicism – isn’t warranted.

SPEAKING OF STUFF we don’t know ...

During a recent meeting of the Sauk Valley Media editorial board, we asked Dixon Mayor Jim Burke about the minutes of those closed meetings of the city council in the hours and days after the arrest of Rita Crundwell.

This week we observed – “celebrated” just wouldn’t be the right word – the 2-year anniversary of the arrest of the city comptroller. On that day we didn’t know the full extent of her $54 million larceny, but it came out soon enough.

Whatever the council discussed in the wake of her arrest will remain secret at least a while longer, the council recently decided on the advice of attorneys.

Despite our prodding, Burke didn’t feel free to offer much more detail, but he did say a couple of interesting things:

1) He had thought the minutes could be released without a problem – until the attorneys advised otherwise.

2) The discussions did not involve the criminality, or even embarrassment, of other individuals who might be involved in the scandal.

Of course, skeptics among the populace won’t be convinced until the minutes are released.

Perhaps when the statute of limitations expires – 2 years for some matters, perhaps 3 years for certain public acts – the legal concerns will become moot.

That could mean release shortly after the 2015 city election.

If, as we suspect, the truth isn’t nearly as bad as the gossip, council members might want to release those minutes earlier – regardless of the advice of lawyers, who are merely advisers, not policy makers.

Folks on the Election Day ballot should have no secrets from the voters.

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