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Top Ten political investigations of 2014

Budget blues, shoddy services, pension perils, dubious deals, and pollution problems — just a sampling of the concerns and controversies the Better Government Association investigated this past year.

OPINION

In all, the BGA – on our website and with media partners, including the Sun-Times – aired and published more than 100 stories and columns on government waste, mismanagement, inefficiency and alleged corruption around the state of Illinois.

In what’s become a year-end tradition, we recently listed our “Top Ten” investigations of public agencies and the officials who run them.

These investigations stand out because they identify problems that involve millions of tax dollars, put safety and the environment at risk, and benefit insiders — not taxpayers.

Among the highlights:

+ A former Illinois Congressman took advantage of little-known loopholes in pension law to collect more than $200,000 a year from four tax-supported retirement plans.

+ The city of Chicago spent more than half a billion dollars over the past decade settling police misconduct claims, straining municipal budgets and fraying relationships between cops and communities.

+ Public hospitals in Illinois paid out more than $180 million in the last 10 years to settle wrongful-death claims prompted by alleged treatment errors, despite ongoing efforts to prevent them.

+ Clout-heavy landlords — including a future member of the Obama cabinet — made big profits in tax dollars by building and leasing the FBI’s new Chicago headquarters.

+ Cash reserves in dozens of Chicago-area police and fire pension funds are drying up, jeopardizing retirement security for first responders and threatening taxpayers with higher bills to cover shortfalls.

These “big” stories are important — no question about it — but they don’t represent everything we do.

We also investigated suburban police misconduct, misuse of state grant funds, legislative conflicts of interest and water pollution concerns.

We uncovered problems at the city’s animal care department, the CTA pension fund, suburban municipalities, the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk’s office, and many other places. Examples include:

+ Cops on the Cook County state’s attorney’s police squad getting in trouble with the law — just the latest revelations of alleged misconduct in that clout-heavy unit.

+ Chicago paramedics taking too long to reach victims — a symptom, we’re told, of a worsening ambulance shortage.

+ An ex-mayor and two former police chiefs in Stone Park drawing pensions from the village, even though all three are felons.

+ A Downstate attorney appointed acting inspector general for the Illinois Legislature, even though he and his firm have strong ties to top lawmakers.

+ Victims of car accidents receiving bills for emergency response crews — a so-called “crash tax” that’s gaining popularity in cash-strapped fire departments.

None of these investigations made our “Top Ten” list, but the work is just as important because good government is everyone’s right.

And the abuse of hard-earned tax dollars isn’t acceptable in any agency anywhere, regardless of size.

So when we discover glaring examples, we do our best to shine a light on them, hold the responsible public officials accountable, and demand reforms.

That’s our mission.

2014 was a good year. We told a lot of important stories, many in partnership with the Sun-Times.

But there’s much more to investigate and uncover, because good government is still a dream, not a reality.

So we’ll double down in 2015.

And that’s a New Year’s pledge from all of us at the BGA.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Twitter: @andyshawbga