By Brian Costin -
When it comes to government corruption, history often repeats itself in Illinois, both in terms of types of corruption and the failure of government to implement policies that could prevent it.
Recently, federal authorities charged the village of Burnham’s long-time village clerk, Nancy Dobrowski, with stealing over $650,000 in funds from local taxpayers. Allegedly, Dobrowski “used most of the cash to gamble at casinos in Indiana and elsewhere.”
The case is eerily similar to the corruption scandal that hit the city of Dixon in 2012, which made nationwide news. Rita Crundwell, Dixon’s comptroller, was charged, convicted and sentenced to more than 19 years in prison for stealing more than $53 million from local taxpayers.
Here are the shocking similarities between the two cases.
- Both Burnham’s Nancy Dobrowski and Dixon’s Rita Crundwell were charged with wire fraud and stealing public funds.
- Both were longtime elected officials with control of their municipality’s finances. Dobrowski was first elected in 1980. Crundwell in 1983.
- Both were accused of providing false information to outside auditing firms to conceal their crimes.
- Both defendants dealt with addiction issues. Dobrowski allegedly used stolen public funds to fuel a gambling addiction, while Crundwell’s used stolen public funds to fuel an expensive addiction to training show horses.
- Both incidents happened over extremely long periods of time. Dobrowski’s alleged embezzlement occurred between 2004 and 2013, and Rita Crundwell was convicted of stealing funds from 1990 until 2012.
But the similarities between the two towns’ corruption cases don’t end there.
Dixon and Burnham did a terrible job of promoting online transparency.
Each community had stunningly poor online transparency grades under the Illinois Policy Institute’s 10-Point Transparency Checklist, and the lack of a comprehensive online transparency policy left both towns vulnerable to corruption.
When graded for online transparency in April 2012, the city of Dixon scored only a 16.7 out of a possible 100 points. Dixon failed to score any points in eight out of the 10 categories of the checklist, including budgets, financial audits, expenditures and contracts with third parties.
Last week, the Institute’s online transparency audit revealed that Burnham scored even lower, with a score of 15.9 points, and the city failed to record any points in the meetings, budget, audits and expenses categories, among others.
And the Institute’s transparency audits also revealed Dixon and Burnham were both violating state website transparency laws.
According to state law, all local governments that maintain a website must post basic information about the Freedom of Information Act process, including “a brief description of the methods the public may use to request information and public records.” Neither Dixon nor Burnham posted this information prior to their corruption scandals.
Also, the Illinois Open Meetings Act requires any public body with a website to post online their meeting calendar and notices, along with agendas and meeting minutes. The village of Burnham currently fails to do so.
Finally, both municipalities were violating a state law that required them to post basic employee compensation information in relation to Public Act 97-0609.
This lack of online transparency leads to corruption opportunities for people such as Crundwell and Dobrowski.
In response to the Rita Crundwell case, Will County Auditor Duffy Blackburn said: “The perception of being detected is one of the strongest deterrents to fraud, according to fraud experts. This is why adopting a policy of transparency in governments, especially local governments, is so important. Transparency and continuous oversight are key tools in creating this type of perception, in addition to their benefits as good governing policy.”
The Institute has graded more than 300 units of local government for online transparency since 2010. When local government corruption stories break in Illinois, the communities in which crimes occur consistently have very low online transparency scores.
A state that doesn’t learn from its history with is destined to repeat its failures. And the state of Illinois has done little to address its corruption problem.
Policymakers and elected officials should take note of public corruption trends and implement new policies that will stop them from occurring again. One such bill that was proposed this year is House Bill 4803, proposed by State Rep. Ed Sullivan Jr., which would require comprehensive online transparency standards for all local governments serving a population of 5,000 or more, and any school district with more than 500 students.
It should come as no shock that only 28 percent of Illinois’ residents – the lowest percentage of any state in the U.S. – trust state government.
The citizens of Illinois deserve better.