The phone calls started Sept. 15.
The journalist wanted to know how Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago) selects students in her Bronzeville district to receive free tuition at 12 Illinois universities.
A team of Columbia College Chicago reporters, in collaboration with Illinois Statehouse News, contacted the offices of all 177 members of the Illinois General Assembly to find out how millions of dollars in scholarships get handed out each year. The journalists wanted to know how each legislator publicizes the scholarship, how students get selected and other basic information about the program.
The journalist called back on Sept. 25, Sept. 30 and Oct. 1.
The reporter had been told that she needed to speak with an aide named Jan. Having left her contact information for her before with no reply, she asked if it was possible for the secretary to give her Jan’s direct line. She said, “No, no, I’m going to have her call you” and took down the reporter’s information.
Jan never called, nor did anyone else from Sen. Hunter’s office.
Reporters got the same response – or lack of response – from 23 other legislative offices that were contacted starting in mid-September. Seventeen representatives and seven senators have not provided basic information about the legislative scholarships, which totaled $12.5 million for the 2007-2008 school year. Eighteen non-responders were Democrats. Eleven serve as officers in their respective houses, including Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) and House Deputy Majority Leader Arthur Turner (D-Chicago).
Terrance Norton, director of Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Center for Open Government, thinks the offices’ unwillingness to respond could lead the public to believe legislators have something to hide.
“As we all know, democracy depends on trust,” Norton said. With so much skepticism in government today, lawmakers not providing this information “breeds more distrust,” he said.
The state’s Freedom of Information Act exempts state lawmakers, so they can choose not to provide information about the scholarships. But that law will change Jan. 1, when each of the 177 legislative offices will be subject to FOIA and required to designate a staffer to handle requests, the attorney general’s office says.
“I think a lot of lawmakers consider these requests to be a nuisance and a waste of time, and an infringement and an intrusion,” said Andy Shaw, executive director of the watchdog group Better Government Association. “They need a lesson in what freedom of information is about.”
Most legislative offices – either an aide or in several instances the lawmakers themselves – promptly answered questions about the century-old scholarship program.
And some lawmakers, like Sen. Deanna Demuzio (D-Carlinville), provided information beyond what had been requested over the phone. Demuzio gave details about the essay questions in her application, the scoring process used in judging each application and the geographic distribution of winners in her district.
But other legislators and their staffs weren’t as open.
Eight calls over a month were made to Rep. Betsy Hannig (D-Litchfield), a first-year legislator who succeeded her husband. Attempts to contact her district office went mostly to voicemail. When the reporter finally reached Hannig at her residence, the lawmaker became annoyed, telling the journalist to get the information from the State Board of Education. The state agency collects the names of the winners each year but cannot answer questions about how each legislator administers the program.
Hannig refused to answer questions and requested the questions be faxed to her district office. When the reporter asked if there was someone else in the office who could provide information, Hannig said: “I don’t want you talking to my legislative assistant about this.”
The journalist faxed the questions Oct. 7. Hannig never replied to the fax, and her office did not respond to four calls made in the following weeks.
Staffers in other legislative offices voiced suspicion or concern about what was going to be done with the information. On Sept. 23, Pastor Juarez, an aide to Rep. Susana A. Mendoza (D-Chicago), asked the reporter: “Is this an exposé? Are you going to put this in a bad light?” He said he e-mailed the journalist’s contact information to the representative.
On Oct 16., a second reporter called the office. Juarez said he wasn’t comfortable speaking on the topic or with what the reporters were trying to do. He said speaking with the reporter was “not a priority” at the time. Mendoza’s office never provided the information.
Rep. Constance Howard (D-Chicago) provided information but asked the reporter why she was being contacted and why the reporter wasn’t calling her own representative.
The open government center’s Norton said legislators don’t need to respond instantaneously, but they should honor requests once they’re aware the public wants information. He thinks that legislators “shouldn’t take advantage of their exemption [from FOIA], especially when there’s public interest. They work for us, they work for you.”
Cindi Canary, executive director of the watchdog group Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said at a minimum, detailed information about the scholarship program should be prominently posted on each participating legislator’s web site and displayed in every high school in the legislative district.
And she’d like to see even more details about the program publicized, like over time how the scholarship is distributed throughout a legislative district.
“Does it always go to one high school? How do [lawmakers] deal with campaign contributors and staff [whose relatives apply]? What are they doing to ensure that this is for the public and not for the insiders?”
Stacey Alletto, Emily Capdevielle, Elida Coseri, Jay Grooms, Laura Lane, Shawna Lent, Nicole Leonhardt, Nicholas Meyers, Jeremie Benoit Rosley, Patrick Smith and Sean Stillmaker contributed to this story.
Other stories from Day One:
Day Two stories: