How one AP veteran exposes corruption in Illinois

John O'Connor, Illinois political writer for the Associated Press. Photo by Jackie Spinner.

IN HIS 20 YEARS as an Illinois statehouse reporter, the Associated Press’ John O’Connor has exposed corruption at nearly every level of Illinois government. His reporting on lies and government waste across five administrations have been one of few constants in a statehouse press corps that, like most others, is a shell of what it was a decade ago. There are fewer than 20 full- and part-time statehouse correspondents now, down from 42 in 2006. Lee Enterprises and the suburban Daily Herald in Arlington Heights both shuttered their statehouse operations in recent years. In December 2016, O’Connor became the AP’s lone statehouse reporter.

O’Connor first used the state’s Freedom of Information laws in 1996 to report on spending excesses at the State Board of Education—a story that led to the superintendent’s resignation. Since then, he has used documents to expose a prison director who flew in a taxpayer-funded plane for personal use, “midnight” raises for transportation department employees from outgoing Governor Rod Blagojevich, and under-the-table funding cuts for domestic violence programs, among other stories. O’Connor’s work is distributed by the AP throughout the state—via the Southern Illinoisan, the Peoria Journal-Star, the Rock River Times  and more—which enables access to state government for those Illinois residents that would not otherwise know what their elected officials are (or are not) up to.

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Already this year, O’Connor has used documents as the foundation for two blockbuster stories. In January, while searching the governor’s schedule, O’Connor discovered evidence of a 2015 meeting between Bruce Rauner and a former business partner at the governor’s mansion in Springfield, which contradicted Rauner’s claim that he had ceased his involvement in business dealings after his election. (Rauner refused questions about the discrepancy and avoided reporters after O’Connor’s story was published.)

In February, O’Connor reported on cost disparities attached to a plumbing problem at a veterans home in Quincy whose residents suffered through an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. O’Connor obtained through a FOIA request an August 2016 report that put state estimates for a plumbing repair at $8 million—far less than the $30 million estimate previously shared by the state’s head of veteran affairs. The chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee credited O’Connor’s work with spurring a meeting on the matter, and with surfacing copies of the 2016 report for lawmakers.

Someone once warned a public information officer that when O’Connor asks a question, he already knows the answer. ‘To an extent it’s true,’ O’Connor says. ‘If I can get a document, I already have the answer.’

O’Connor had presumed the Department of Veterans Affairs would deny his FOIA request under a section that exempts documents considered to be “preliminary,” and in which opinions are expressed. However, that exemption is overridden if the head of the public body describes the document in public, which the director of the VA had done before a legislative committee. O’Connor got the report, he says, “because I know the law.”

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He also knows what kinds of records a public body keeps, breaks his requests down into pieces when they get too broad, and writes stories about denials—which, he says, are “sometimes stories.”

Report on outlandish denials or those about significant public issues,” says O’Connor. “You don’t want to do this too often, lest you be mischaracterized as a whiner. But remember—and put it in your story—that the overwhelming majority of FOIA requests don’t come from nosy reporters, or ambulance-chasing lawyers, or ivory tower academics, they come from everyday taxpayers. Access to actions by public bodies is a huge issue and denials need to be exposed.”

 

DOCUMENTS REPORTING SUITS O’CONNOR “The documents don’t lie,” he tells CJR. While he enjoys the stage—O’Connor plays Abraham Lincoln in a one-man show, and has performed as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of the Music—he does not enjoy confrontation, or the quick turn-around that filing a breaking news story requires.

“I am less comfortable in writing the story of the day,” he tells CJR. “If you give me a little a little time, I can be methodical.” Someone once warned a public information officer that when O’Connor asks a question, he already knows the answer. Word of that warning made its way back to the reporter. “To an extent it’s true,” O’Connor says. “If I can get a document, I already have the answer.”

The desire to look beyond the daily news is perhaps O’Connor’s greatest strength, says Chris Kaergard, columnist and political reporter at the Peoria paper.

“Whether that’s auditor general reports, little-known parole initiatives, or something else, O’Connor gets into material people didn’t know that they ought to know about, and shines a light on it,” Kaergard says. “Ultimately, his investigative stories drive the conversation, and they drive change. That’s what Illinoisans need to keep informed, and to keep state government accountable.”

Kurt Erickson, a former Illinois statehouse reporter who now covers the Missouri statehouse for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, followed O’Connor to the City Hall beat at the Pantagraph and then worked alongside him in Springfield when Erickson was the bureau chief for Lee Enterprises. “He was inspirational to me in terms of being dogged and digging out these things that would reveal something about how our tax dollars are being spent, or corruption or mismanagement,” Erickson says.

I’m not going to be able to dissect every motive or intention the day you announce a policy or pledge to do something, but I’m going to take you at your word and, by gosh, if there’s any possibility, I’m going to check it out.

O’Connor filed a FOIA request for inmates who had escaped  after a 2013 prison break in Eastern Illinois, recalls Erickson. Through the documents he requested, O’Connor learned that Illinois had 22 fugitives at the time, some of whom had been on the lam for decades. (O’Connor previously reported that the state Department of Corrections had secretly released 1,700 inmates from prison early in an effort to save money and reduce overcrowding; his coverage encouraged legislative efforts to limit the program.)

“He holds politicians accountable with scalpel-like precision,” says Mike Lawrence, a former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale who served as press secretary for former Governor Jim Edgar after a long career as a statehouse reporter. Kerry Lester, who worked with O’Connor in the AP statehouse bureau for three years, calls him “a digger.”

“It was amazing to watch him work, his dedication to getting facts that a lot of government agencies would like to keep hidden,” says Lester, now a freelance journalist and author. “He’s very well-versed in the appeals process, and he has a good relationship with FOIA attorneys, so he knows where to go when he gets shut down.”

Roger Schneider, an AP news editor for Michigan who also edits coverage in Illinois and Indiana, calls O’Connor a “stabilizing guy in Springfield”—an important role, given the diminution of the statehouse press corps and the turnover within its ranks. “A lot of times, it’s ‘Follow the herd, report on the session and you’re done at the end of the day,’” says Schneider. “He has this critical thinking that when somebody says something, he can’t just take them at [their] word. He’s able to look past that and hold them accountable.”

 

I CAUGHT UP WITH O’CONNOR in Springfield, the day after Governor Rauner delivered his budget address. When he moved into the governor’s mansion in 2015, Rauner had remarked, he noticed that the lights were always on, even in those rooms that were not in use. Rauner put the power bill for the mansion at $100,000 a year, an amount he called “outrageous,” and said he implemented better energy management practices to “cut the bill substantially.” By how much, he did not say. I wrote “FOIA utility bill” in my notebook.

I told O’Connor about my FOIA note, and he laughed. He’d had the same idea.

“I work hard and find evidence,” O’Connor says. “I’m not going to be able to dissect every motive or intention the day you announce a policy or pledge to do something, but I’m going to take you at your word and, by gosh, if there’s any possibility, I’m going to check it out. That’s where I think my strength is. I don’t forget. I have a long memory.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.