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Unsung Hero: Illinois watchdogs are raising a racket over local corruption

By   /   January 12, 2017  /   No Comments

Part 7 of 9 in the series Unsung Heroes

Submitted photoPerhaps the most long-lasting effect of the investigative work done by John Kraft and Kirk Allen with Edgar County Watchdogs isn’t the more than 200 officials they’ve chased out of office, but the viral impact they’ve had.

Others in Illinois have formed their own groups in Illinois to combat waste, fraud and abuse by public officials, including a coalition in Morgan County that has managed to bust several bureaucrats there.

“They’re replicating the model,” Mr. Allen said. “We’re excited to see them step up and have success.”

Edgar County Watchdogs, now rebranded as Illinois Leaks, has also spurred state media to action. Mr. Allen said Chicago Tribune reporters have told him his and Mr. Kraft’s work has “forced them to do a better job and do it faster.”

Messrs. Kraft and Allen came together in 2011, discussing each other’s bureaucratic woes at a candidate’s dinner. Mr. Kraft had asked to film a school graduation so he could sell the video and learned that someone else was hired for the job without public discussion. Mr. Allen, the volunteer fire chief in the town of Kansas, learned that a dispatcher didn’t instruct the parents of a baby having trouble breathing on CPR techniques. He investigated and learned the 911 call center hadn’t certified its dispatchers in CPR techniques in the past six years, as is required by law.

Further investigation there determined that taxpayer money was used for everything from pizza parties to gambling. Messrs. Kraft and Allen created their website and started investigating, using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to uncover a fount of bureaucratic blunders.

“In Edgar County, the public officials hate to see us come in the door,” Mr. Kraft said.

After a year focusing on Edgar County, Messrs. Kraft and Allen expanded into other counties and now cover a wide swath of Illinois.

“It’s morphed into a full-time operation,” Mr. Allen said. “When demands from other areas came in, we realized we could spend more than 80 hours a week and not touch all the tips that come in.”

Illinois Leaks has seen some big hits that have helped launch federal investigations — from uncovering questionable spending at the College of DuPage to Auditor General Frank Mautino’s possible campaign fund malfeasance.

Their work earned them the State Policy Network’s Vernon K. Krieble Unsung Hero Award for 2016, given to citizens who make a significant contribution to the preservation of freedom.

The check for $25,000, like the funds that are donated to Messrs. Kraft and Allen through their website, will go toward filing lawsuits in an effort to hold officials accountable.

“I never dreamed I’d be filing lawsuits as a former Air Force mechanic and fire chief,” Mr. Allen said.

But he and Mr. Kraft use the legal system to hold officials’ feet to the fire, including Mr. Mautino and his staff.

“I want a judge to declare they violated FOIA as they admitted in the answer to my complaint,” Mr. Allen said.

Mr. Kraft retired from the Army after 22 years of service. He’s now studying for his master’s degree in political science and public administration at Eastern Illinois University.

Mr. Kraft worked as a janitor at St. Mary’s School in Paris, Ill., but lost his job after starting Edgar County Watchdogs.

“Some of the donors were the people we were investigating,” Mr. Kraft said.

But that didn’t slow him down. In fact, when asked his thoughts on what he and Mr. Allen have accomplished, Mr. Kraft said he’s “disappointed that we couldn’t do more.”

He wishes the pair could afford to keep an attorney or two on retainer to help with the lawsuits.

“It would make things go quicker,” Mr. Kraft said.

Their dedication to making things get better faster makes Messrs. Kraft and Allen this month’s Unsung Heroes.

Part of 9 in the series Unsung Heroes

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Johnny Kampis is National Watchdog Reporter for Watchdog.org. Johnny previously worked in the newspaper industry and as a freelance writer, and has been published in The New York Times, Time.com, FoxNews.com and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A former semi-professional poker player, he is writing a book documenting the poker scene at the 2016 World Series of Poker, a decade after the peak of the poker boom. Johnny is also a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors.