The Better Government Association celebrated a busy and effective year, honored Richard H. Driehaus and explored the challenges of investigating people in power at a virtual fundraising event Sept. 14. Thanks to generous sponsors and supporters, the event raised more than $1 million to support the BGA’s work.
A highlight of the event was BGA President David Greising’s conversation with Jeffrey Toobin, the New Yorker writer, author and CNN legal analyst.
Toobin said that he had dedicated his new book, True Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Investigation of Donald Trump, not to a family member as usual but to his fellow reporters because of the essential work journalists are doing in such difficult times for the profession.
“The Trump presidency, whatever else you can say about it, has been a golden age of journalism,” Toobin said. Singling out several major publications that have made important revelations, he noted, “They have behaved in an extremely honorable way, notwithstanding the president’s attacks. I’m proud to be a reporter and proud to be part of this imperfect profession. I just hope that the economics allow our work to continue.”
Greising opened the event by summing up the achievements of a norm-breaking, difficult year. The BGA “has shaken our fists at COVID-19—and produced some of our best work ever,” he said, recapping these investigations and achievements:
- Charges emerging from the federal corruption investigation into several officials leading all the way to Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan echo the findings of BGA investigators, who were the first to report, with WBEZ, that Commonwealth Edison’s lobbying was at the heart of the probe.
- A more recent BGA investigation showed how top legislative leaders game the state’s campaign laws, building war chests that cement their hold on power.
- Nimbly pivoting to focus on the government’s response to the pandemic, BGA reporters exposed the state’s failure to provide protective equipment for home health workers. They showed how COVID concerns are threatening the state’s Census count. And an investigation into school spending showed how COVID is making the digital divide a threat to equity in education.
- The policy team is playing an essential role, too, stepping in to kill an effort in the state legislature to suspend the Freedom of Information Act during COVID-19 and pushing for a law that expanded mail-in voting in Illinois.
- While lawmakers in Springfield argued over timid versions of ethics reform, the BGA set the bar with a bold, comprehensive list of reforms that can curb corruption in Illinois government.
- A BGA lawsuit forced the city to release video of the impaired-driving incident that cost police chief Eddie Johnson his job.
- After Mayor Lightfoot and the City Council met in secret three times, a BGA sued to stop that. Earlier, the BGA joined a lawsuit that led to a state Supreme Court ruling that forbids the destruction of police disciplinary records.
“Standing here, I represent a BGA staff of nearly 20 people who devote their careers to strengthening government in Illinois. And with your help, we are getting stronger. And when we don’t get what’s right, we just keep fighting.
“This is the work you are supporting with your participation today. Thank you for your investment. Thank you for your encouragement. Please stay in the fight and keep demanding better government in the state of Illinois,” Greising concluded.
Former BGA Board Vice-Chair Daniel Goodwin presented longtime BGA supporter Richard H. Driehaus with the 2020 Daniel L. Goodwin Watchdog Award. “We’re recognizing Richard for his lifetime contributions to economic development, philanthropy, civic engagement and his passionate advocacy for investigative journalism and government accountability,” said Goodwin, principal and chairman of the Inland Real Estate Group of Companies.
“Richard has been supporting the BGA for more than two decades. In 2004, to demonstrate his commitment to and passion for investigative reporting, he generously partnered with the BGA to name Richard H. Driehaus Awards, a juried competition that honors top investigative reporting each year. Congratulations, Richard.”
“I’m grateful and pleased to receive the Daniel L. Goodwin Watchdog Award,” Driehaus said. “More importantly, I’m thrilled to be supporting critically important investigative journalism. With all that is going on in Chicago, in Illinois, and our nation, holding government accountable has never been more important. Thank you again.
Toobin shared some thoughts about the people and processes behind the Russia investigation and impeachment, then turned the conversation to federal investigations in Illinois. With the investigation linked to Mike Madigan as a standout example, Greising asked Toobin to comment on the complexity of working with cooperating witnesses when pursuing such a case.
“Cooperating witnesses or ‘flippers’ are most morally perilous situations for prosecutors,” he said. It’s hard to make a successful case without one; all the evidence and records presented pale in impact compared to an associate of the indicted person giving a first-hand account of wrongdoing.
But cooperating witnesses are driven by strong self-interest to flip. “In cases like these, 90% never go to trial because defendants plead guilty, but those who do get the hammer. Cooperators get much lower sentences, so they have a huge incentive to play along. Are they going to shade their story? This is the most morally perilous but frankly the most interesting challenge for a prosecutor: to try to get to the truth.”
We are grateful for the generous support of BGA board member Anna Weaver and for the role she played in making this event such a success. We are also deeply thankful for those whose generous contributions supported this event.
- John A. Canning, Jr.
- Richard H. Driehaus
- Daniel L. Goodwin
- Joseph Mansueto
- Edwardson Family Foundation
- Mary and Paul Finnegan
- Jim and Karen Frank
- Jim and Kay Mabie
- Joe Antunovich
- Barnes & Thornburg LLP
- Francis and Prudence Beidler
- Chicago Cubs
- Gary Elden and Phyllis Mandler
- The Joseph & Bessie Feinberg Foundation
- Carroll Joynes and Abby O’Neil
- Ann and Samuel Mencoff
- Steve Miller
- James Perry
- Kathleen and Jim Skinner
- E. David Coolidge III
- The Crown Family
- Ken Dauten, Keystone Capital
- Bill Donnell and Claudia Daly
- The Duchossois Group
- Scott Hodes
- Andrew J. McKenna
- Alexandra C. Nichols
- John W. and Jeanne M. Rowe
- Mark Rust
- John and Jill Svoboda
- Barack Ferrazzano Kirschbaum & Nagelberg LLP
- BMO Harris Bank
- Robert and Linda Levin
- John and Judy McCarter