This is it. Our top two in a hall-of-fame lineup of 17 Good Guys of 2014. These citizens, government officials and politicians took to heart the mission of Watchdog.org, to hold government at all levels accountable to the public. We salute each of them.
#1 Barb Haselden
Barb Haselden probably saved her fellow Florida taxpayers $2 billion. For her effort, she earned the wrath of powerful political, business and media interests.
Haselden and her merry crew, No Tax for Tracks, had the gall to question the cost and the value of a 24-mile light-rail line connecting St. Petersburg to Clearwater. Hers was a classic David vs. Goliath battle over public money.
“It was nasty,” she told Watchdog.
Haselden went to dozens of transit authority meetings, decoding and alerting the public to a web of interests that stood to benefit from the project. They made signs, organized on Facebook, knocked on doors, made phone calls and provided a voice of dissent at public meetings.
Despite a $1.2 million effort that included misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal terrorism grants, county voters rejected what would have burdened them with the highest sales tax rate in Florida.
Outgunned and outspent, No Tax for Tracks beat the elites.
“It was a huge investment, but I did it,” Haselden said. “I’m not a genius or an expert, but I wouldn’t let them get around me. Anyone can do this. Just start in your own county.”
–Will Patrick, Watchdog.org Florida Bureau—
#2 Wallace Hall
Wallace Hall is a Texas hero, a profile in courage, a real life Mr. Smith who went to Austin.
Hall, a University of Texas regent, took a stand for the principle of a public university — that admissions at the University of Texas ought to be decided by merit, not political connections. He took on the good-ol’-boy network that dominates state politics.
The good-ol’-boys repaid him with a historic impeachment. He withstood all the calumnies and lies printed about him by an uncritical press corps.
Now there’s an official investigation well under way, and the school’s president and chancellor have already submitted their resignations. There’s still a chance an infamously political district attorney in Travis County might try to bring criminal charges against Hall, although they’d surely be laughed out of court.
We here at Watchdog were proud to dig up much of the key evidence that Hall was right all along — dummies are getting into UT thanks to their connections.
–Jon Cassidy, Watchdog.org Texas Bureau–
#3 Virginia farmers
The best people of Virginia are grounded in reality. Literally.
Martha Boneta, Bernadette Barber, Lois Smith and a host of other small Virginia farmers are leading a fight for personal liberty against onerous regulations that eliminate food choices.
These three unsung heroines are part of the resistance against the Gestapo-like tactics employed by environmental poseurs, local politicians, state regulators and even the powerful Virginia Farm Bureau trying to curb entrepreneurship.
Boneta, of Fauquier County, helped convince the state Legislature to expand Virginia’s Right to Farm law, blocking local officials from dictating what farmers can do with their land and opening new fields to small-scale agriculture and improved nutrition.
Barber and Smith’s groups — Virginia Food Freedom and the Virginia Independent Consumers & Farmers Association — are promoting a constitutional amendment to enable consumers to purchase more farm products, including raw milk, directly from farms. Imagine that!
Boneta, Barber and Smith are working to make small-scale agriculture sustainable, the way this nation’s founders envisioned it, without kowtowing to the political or corporate establishment.
It’s fitting three women from the home state of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, et al, are at the forefront of a 21st century agrarian renaissance.
–Kenric Ward, Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau–
#4 Eric O’Keefe
Eric O’Keefe risked his personal liberty standing up against Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and his secret John Doe probe of aides, allies and friends of Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Tired of Chisholm’s seemingly endless investigations, O’Keefe took on the prosecutors. State and federal judges agreed prosecutors had failed to prove probable cause that the conservative groups had committed alleged campaign finance crimes.
An appeals court later overturned a federal judge’s decision to shut down the investigation, but only on the grounds that the lawsuit should be settled in state court.
Finally, O’Keefe is suing the Government Accountability Board, the state’s regulator of campaign finance and election law on charges of cobbling together a “Frankenstein’s monster” of laws and rules to justify an attack on First Amendment rights.
O’Keefe’s stand took the secret John Doe probe out of the shadows for the public. Without him, silence would have been enforced, the prosecutors’ secrets might never have been exposed and First Amendment speech rights would remain in peril.
–M.D. Kittle – Wisconsin Reporter–
#5 Mike Foley
In January, Mike Foley becomes lieutenant governor of Nebraska. Privately, many people will be celebrating his departure as state auditor.
For the past eight years, Foley tore through budgets all across the state looking for waste, fraud and corruption — and had no trouble finding it. He found state employees making what appeared to be fake trips, put legal guardians in jail for plundering their wards’ bank accounts and energy assistance checks being sent to dead people.
And in Nebraska, where you can’t swing a donkey without hitting an elephant, he routinely found issues in the offices run by his fellow Republicans. The secretary of state was dinged for not competitively bidding out contracts, the state Supreme Court for going over budget and improper travel and the university system for breaking the law for not turning over health records.
Sometimes, Foley would announce his more shocking findings in press conferences, which did not endear him to the targets of his investigations.
Foley’s new boss, incoming Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, has promised to help Foley clean up some of the messes he uncovered. We hope Ricketts keeps his promise.
–Deena Winter, Watchdog.org Nebraska Bureau–
#6 Cynthia Browning
Vermont Rep. Cynthia Browning sued the leader of her own party after Gov. Peter Shumlin defied an Act 48 requirement that he disclose financing plans for single-payer health care.
After months of delay that happened to coincide with an election, Superior Court Judge Mary Teachout ruled Shumlin could keep documents and discussions secret when devising policy.
Teachout’s ruling is so broad it even protects Shumlin’s secrecy with business leaders and consumer advisory committees not part of his administration.
Browning called the ruling “a defeat for transparency and accountability,” and she said she plans to introduce legislation in 2015 to end the broad interpretation of executive privilege.
Shumlin, citing financing worries, pulled the plug on single-payer.
Shumlin cleverly chose not to specify financing for a single-payer health plan when Act 48 became law in 2011, Browning told Vermont Watchdog. “If he had,” she said, “that bill would not have passed.”
–Bruce Parker, Watchdog.org Vermont Bureau–
#7 John Whitehead
John Whitehead and his Rutherford Institute have since 1996 intervened to protect religious freedom here, taken on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, and — gasp! — fought for the sanctity of human life everywhere.
Whitehead went stronger than ever in 2014.
Whitehead, an attorney based in Charlottesville, Va., was one of the first to blow the whistle on invasive use of drones. Recently, he helped free a veteran who was arrested for posting “dangerous” opinions on Facebook.
Where partisan agendas paralyze the ACLU, the Rutherford Institute stays true to the fundamental principle that government overreach puts a chokehold on individual liberty.
Whitehead’s 2013 book — “A Government of Wolves” — paints a grim portrait of a nation in the final stages of transformation into a police state.
This inconvenient truth offends our public servants and mainstream media outlets dutifully toeing the statist line. But Whitehead also discomforts conservatives who preach “American exceptionalism” abroad while steadily undercutting constitutional rights at home.
As he says, “Anytime people find themselves under fire from both the liberal left and the conservative right, it means that that person is probably right on target.”
—Kenric Ward, Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau–
#8 Eric Epstein and Gene Stilp
This past year, Eric Epstein and Gene Stilp handed out fake bribes to Pennsylvania lawmakers, used Halloween props to mock a “ghost employee” in the governor’s office and set off a quacking ringtone while the General Assembly discussed the state’s $153 million reserve fund.
The two political pranksters — some inside the Capitol would say self-appointed reformers — got under the skins of lawmakers. Those legislators, on the other hand, give Stilp and Epstein plenty to work with.
Longtime supporters of a ban on gifts to lawmakers, the pair delivered fake bribes, $1,000 bills with Gov. Tom Corbett’s picture on them that read “IN GRAFT WE TRUST,” to their offices. No gift ban was passed.
“You’re dealing with a Legislature that couldn’t pass gas at a frat party,” Epstein said then.
After public officials were caught sending X-rated emails, the pair set up a post office box soliciting anonymous tips about other misuse of government computers.
Stilp, a perennial candidate for public office, also hilariously hijacked a natural gas rally and practically worked a part-time job filling out ethics complaints.
—Andrew Staub, PA Independent—
#9 Kristi Rosenquist
Anyone fighting Minnesota’s green energy, crony capitalism establishment knows there’s only one resource to turn to for backup — Kristi Rosenquist, citizen wind and renewable energy watchdog extraordinaire.
“No one is looking out for citizens, nobody,” Rosenquist said. “None of the agencies, none of the regulatory bodies. Absolutely nobody is looking out for the interests of consumers, landowners, residents and ordinary citizens.
Rosenquist, a consultant who owns a hobby farm with her husband, Bob, is as knowledgeable as any high priced energy attorney but she volunteers her time.
In 2010, she opposed billionaire T. Boone Pickens’ Texas-size industrial wind turbine proposal for southeastern Minnesota farm country with a billboard —“Pickens Gets the Gold Mine, We get the Shaft.” Pickens pulled out and the $180 million project is now dead in her back yard.
Google “Rosenquist” today, and 425,000 mentions pop up, give or take. This past year alone, Rosenquist advised wind development opponents in her home state as well as Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
–Tom Steward, Watchdog.org Minnesota Bureau–
#10 Jonathan Gruber
What? Jonathan Gruber, the best person of the year?
Surely not the MIT economist and Obamacare architect who called American voters stupid and admitted a lack of transparency was necessary to get Obamacare passed.
Well, yes, he is.
Public officials are not supposed to say the things Gruber did in a series of videos that came to light during the second half of the year. No matter what they might think, they are supposed to stick to the talking points, assure everything is being done in the best interest of the country, the poor, the oppressed and let’s not forget, the children.
Gruber’s greatest accomplishment is not helping write one of the most complicated, unpopular pieces of legislation in the nation’s history. Or that he collected six-figure consulting fees from several states while duping them with his projections.
It’s that he told everyone, proudly and honestly, how big things actually get done in Washington.
Even if he didn’t mean to.
–Eric Boehm, Watchdog.org Washington Bureau–
#11 Wayne Stenehjem
“Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote that in 1789, and it holds true today. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem is one of Jefferson’s modern day defenders.
Stenehjem’s office has worked hard to enforce North Dakota’s very strong open records laws that apply broadly to all aspects of government. Good laws only work when we have public officials like Stenehjem willing to enforce them.
He has helped keep open records process accessible to the general public, and has been unwilling to accept technicalities or excuses from public officials for not following those laws. In doing so, he has set a strong precedent for enforcing the state’s transparency laws for future leaders.
North Dakota is a more open state, with better governance, because of Stenehjem’s work.
–Rob Port, Watchdog.org, North Dakota Bureau–
#12 John Adams
State Rep. John Adams was one of few elected Republicans who dared question Gov. John Kasich. And now because of term limits he is out.
Adams is one of the limited-government legislators who thought Kasich’s 2010 election heralded a sea change in Ohio. The governor’s proposed
tax hike on drilling for gas and oil, increased state spending and the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare disabused them of the notion.
As assistant majority floor leader in the House, Adams fought to block Obamacare expansion in the Legislature and gathered signatures for a formal protest when Kasich expanded Medicaid unilaterally.
He and other conservatives worked for meaningful labor law, defined-benefit pensions and municipal tax structure reform.
With Kasich loyalists running the Ohio Republican Party and Kasich happy to lean on his bully pulpit, Adams’ contrarian leadership will be missed.
–Jason Hart, Ohio Watchdog–
#13 Scott Wagner
When he first got to Harrisburg, newly elected State Sen. Scott Wagner couldn’t help but notice a few of the portraits of former state lawmakers hanging in the hallway of the Pennsylvania Capitol.
Alongside portraits of lawmakers who served with honor were four who had been convicted of crimes. Nobody seemed to care much about it until Wagner, R-York, introduced a resolution condemning the practice of hanging portraits of dishonored lawmakers.
The portraits didn’t come down, but not long after plaques were affixed to those four portraits chronicling their misdeeds.
Since then, Wagner has helped spur the ouster of the Senate majority leader, challenged public-sector unions, pushed for public pension reform and urged lawmakers to re-evaluate everything, including the Capitol’s electric bill.
Wagner’s penchant for speaking bluntly — he compared union leaders to power-hungry dictators like Hitler — has been criticized. The criticism is unlikely to silence him.
–Andrew Staub, PA Independent —
#14 Bloggers in the Heitman case
Kristy Herron, Susie Taylor and Andrew Howe used their blogs to raise questions establishment media didn’t about the death of an Oak Ridge School District employee.
Traditional media initially didn’t do much investigating in the case. Just last month, the same coroner who ruled that Alex Heitman committed suicide in 2011 recently lost his job due to allegedly tampering with a dead body.
Heitman’s family said that before his death he had discovered taxpayer money had been used to buy methamphetamine.
The three bloggers, none of whom knew Heitman, and none of whom are journalists by training, refused to accept the suicide ruling blindly. There was no coroner’s report, they wrote, and law enforcement has been far less than transparent in providing information.
A growing number of people in Oak Ridge now believe Heitman didn’t take his own life and two area newspapers eventually had to re-examine the case.
Herron, Taylor and Howe say traditional media avoid bringing negative attention to their communities. Blogging, they contend, is necessary for communities to stay informed and offers the opportunity for candid discussion of community problems.
–Chris Butler, Tennessee Watchdog.org–
#15 The Confidential Source
One of our best people for 2014 is the Confidential Source.
That means Watchdog really can’t name this best person of the year. It’s confidential — and we’ve agreed to keep the identities secret. But you know who you are.
You make many of our investigative reports possible. We appreciate your tips, information, observations, complaints and concerns. Sometimes
your emails and calls turn into great stories, sometimes not. Yet they are always deeply appreciated.
Along with gratitude and praise, here are a few tips of our own:
We like records and hard evidence. The more, the merrier. Since we can’t name you as a source, we must find other ways to prove the story is true.
There are conspiracies in the world, but we’re not part of them. When we tell you that your identity will be kept confidential, you can trust us. Our professional reputation is at stake.
Some of you prefer to be anonymous as well as confidential. However, there are times we really need to ask you questions about the information you’ve sent our way. Sometimes we must drop otherwise promising stories because we can’t verify details.
Thanks again — and we look forward to hearing from you again in 2015.
–Mark Lagerkvist, New Jersey Watchdog–
#16 Greendale Village Board of Trustees
The Greendale (Wis.) Village Board of Trustees stood up to its own parents and its Board of Education in 2014.
The Greendale Board of Education had asked that polling places be removed from schools after parents, reacting to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., argued they increased the risk of gun violence.
Sandy Hook parents themselves had never asked for voting to be moved somewhere else after the deaths of 26 people.
Concerned about voter disenfranchisement and added costs, village board members asked that taxpaying residents weigh in on a nonbinding referendum on the November ballot. Advocates, worried taxpayers without children would tip the scales in the other direction, asked the board to quash the referendum.
The village board refused until the school board agreed to withdraw its request to remove the polling places.
–Adam Tobias, Wisconsin Reporter–
#17 Brandon Presley
With the shifting gusts of public and political opinion, politicians generally spin like a weather vane.
But despite headwinds from two governors and the Secretary of Energy, Brandon Presley, commissioner for the Public Service Commission’s Northern District, has remained steady and straight.
Presley is one of the few elected officials in the state to decry the oft-delayed “clean coal” Kemper Project power plant. When the other two members of his commission voted to allow Mississippi Power to continue work on the plant, he was Dr. No.
A plant that was supposed to cost $2.8 billion now has a price tag of $6.1 billion and counting, making it one of the most expensive power plants per kilowatt hour in U.S. history. Construction, already a year behind schedule, has cost Mississippi Power ratepayers millions of dollars in increased power rates.
Presley, a Democrat and the former mayor of Nettleton, has gotten PSC opinion to blow in his direction. Earlier this year, the PSC told Mississippi Power until the plant is proven to be in commercial operation it will not hold hearings to decide whether Mississippi Power or ratepayers will pay for building Kemper.
Presley didn’t waver from his convictions and that’s laudable.
–Steve Wilson, Mississippi Watchdog–