You’ve probably heard that the Sun-Times endorsed Bruce Rauner last week. And maybe you also heard that Rauner’s campaign raised objections to a story that Dave McKinney wrote about some alleged bullying of a former executive at one of Rauner’s companies. And that the objections ignited a trail of argument and retribution that has ended with McKinney’s resignation.
Chris Fusco, an investigative reporter with the paper, told us that McKinney is a personal friend. “Obviously, everybody at the Sun-Times, myself included, hundreds of stories I’ve dome with Dave McKinney, we all think the world of him.”
The handling of the controversy, and McKinney’s resignation, have cast a pall over the newsroom, he tells us.
“There’s a certain degree of survivor’s guilt going on. It’s like, should we all follow Dave? And I don’t think that’s what Dave wants for us or for the paper. The issues that Dave’s situation raises historically have happened in newsrooms across the country, and this one ended horribly for both sides I think. The question is how do we go on from here, and I think we need to be talking constructively about that. Maybe there’ll be some sort of constructive dialog between newsroom and management about how to do that, and maybe there won’t. But I think our resolve is to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Today’s show celebrates investigative reporting. The Tribune’s investigative reporter David Kidwell has been making waves with revelations that the City of Chicago made a teensy-weensy change when it transitioned between vendors for its red-light system – a change that was, in itself, an effort to distance the administration from a multi-layered scandal involving the old vendor. That change authorized the new vendor to issue tickets when yellow lights were as short as 2.9 seconds, a tenth of a second shorter than the previous deal’s 3.0.
“The City made the decision to change the way it defined what constitutes a traffic ticket,” Kidwell explains. “Before, if a red-light camera ticket came in and the video showed that the yellow light was below three seconds, for ten years they’ve been throwing those out. Routinely. The federal minimum is three seconds. So whatever the reason, the City decided when Xerox took over the contract in February to start issuing those tickets.”
Over the summer the Trib started hearing reports that the City’s eighty-some administrative law judges were throwing out many more “2.9” tickets, and the paper wanted to know why.
“Few people appeal,” Says Kidwell. But when they do, the judge has to look at several important criteria. “Is the camera operating properly, does the technician sign the certificate, is the yellow light long enough? And the judges were seeing all these tickets and they were routinely throwing them out. They would come in with 2.9 seconds.”
Hundreds and hundreds of tickets were dismissed for various reasons, but suddenly, Kidwell says, “Of all the tickets that were thrown out, more than a third had yellows that were below the standard.”
So in September, the Trib went to talk with the Department of Transportation.
“I was asking them, why the change…why haven’t you conveyed this to your administrative law judges? Couldn’t answer. Well, it turns out on the next Monday they suspended (the setting). They decided to go back to the way it was.”
But that didn’t do much for thousands of people who got dinged by the cameras.
“77,000 people got tickets that they wouldn’t have gotten under the previous policy, and under the policy that’s currently in effect,” Kidwell says, and “that’s eight million dollars in revenue the city would not have generated.”
“It’s just another example,” he continues, “of inconsistent enforcement that all the experts we’ve talked to, I can’t find an expert who says that any of this is fair…The City is working very hard to avoid the topic of fairness. It doesn’t matter. If you violated the law, that’s your problem.”
This is usually the point at which the experts cluck about the mess that Mayor Daley left behind. But not this time.
“Every time the Mayor is asked about this red-light scandal – the corruption – we did a story about these really weird spikes that were going on all over the city that prompted tens of thousands of questionable tickets that to this day they cannot answer – any time you ask the Mayor about that he always says well, that was a previous administration. I fixed it. Everything’s better now. But this decision, this change in the yellow-light standard, is his. He owns this one. ”
Chris Fusco sums it up. “There is big money in road construction, transit, and all the way down to a tenth of a second in red lights”.
With the mid-term election already under way, we asked Fusco about the Most Awesomely Powerful Man in Illinois, the Speaker of the House, Michael Madigan.
“We came up with a universe of nearly 250 people and 1.3 million dollars over fifteen years of people, government workers, who at some point were employed by government who gave to Madigan campaigns,” Fusco said of his most recent investigation of Madigan’s political reach. “Then we cross-referenced that with several campaigns we know Madigan supported, including his daughter (Lisa) and took a look at how many of those people had government jobs. And what we found was a ton of them do. A lot of them were on clout lists that had surfaced during various administrations, and in some cases they just had pretty incredible government deals.”
He cites dramatic examples of Madigan protegees who have attained high positions in just about every branch of local and regional government, often at high salaries.
“The only career politician out there with a patronage army that powerful is Mike Madigan,” asserts David Kidwell. “If you want to look at the impact of it, look at the pension crisis we’re dealing with right now. A lot of that has to do with decisions that Mike Madigan made while he was building this patronage army of government employees all of whom benefit from these pensions.”
So how will the upcoming election affect Speaker Madigan? How will he deal with a Governor Rauner if he’s elected?
“Mike Madigan’s going to be Fine. Just Fine,” says Kidwell. “Whoever takes over the Governor’s office. He controls the budget. The Governor doesn’t. And Bruce Rauner, through all of his talk about taking on government, good luck, sir. He’s in for a rude awakening.
And we end with the Anecdote of the Week. It’s from Kidwell, about John Bills, the Dep’t of Transportation deputy who got caught allegedly extorting about two million dollars out of RedFlex, the original camera operator. Someone who Fusco describes as “a key guy for Madigan.”
“Bills came up from a lamp maintenance worker to the number two guy in the Department of Transportation with the help of Mike Madigan,” explains Kidwell. “He was a top-earning precinct captain, he had a very strong reputation, on a first-name basis with Mike Madigan, a first-name basis with Mayor Daley, and that’s how he grew up.
But John Bills has gone off the reservation a few times in his public career, Kidwell explains. “He contributed $500 to the campaign of Pat Levar back in 2000 when he was trying to go against Dorothy Brown for Circuit Clerk. Mike Madigan didn’t like it. And so John Bills found himself going from a very nice office in City Hall , handed a tape measure, working out of a trailer in the quarry measuring offices for renovations, for a year. That gives you some idea of the reach of Mike Madigan. Took him a year to work his way back into Mike Madigan’s good graces.”
And into that – allegedly – bribe-rich job managing the camera program that shoveled a half-billion dollars into the City treasury.