The Better Government Association is a Chicago-based investigative journalism non-profit organization. BGA journalistic investigations are guided by the newly adopted BGA guidelines for investigations and oversight protocols. They work under the motto, “Shining a Light on Government”.
The Association works under a board of directors and does not accept government funding. It functions off of the support of foundations, corporations, law firms, major donors, and individuals.
Mission and History
The Better Government Association’s mission is to work for “integrity, transparency, and accountability in government by exposing corruption and inefficiency; identifying and advocating effective public policy; and engaging and mobilizing the electorate to achieve authentic and responsible reform”.
In May 1923, E. J. Davis, director of the Anti-Saloon League, along with a group of clergymen, lawyers, editors, and businessmen formed the Better Government Association to combat the corruption in the Prohibition-era government. They believed that “public officials under close scrutiny would serve the public better; that the best voter was an informed one and the best citizen was an involved one”. After a merger with the Legislative Voter’s League, the BGA worked for the next 34 years. In 1957, new Executive Director George Mahin set out to evolve the role of the BGA.
In the 1960s, Mahin and Charles Percy, a board member, started a new program called Operation Watchdog, which allowed the BGA to become a media partner. This partnership put pressure on state politicians and public officials. The first major investigation was conducted by Chicago Tribune reporter George Bliss, who uncovered corruption at the Metropolitan Sanitary District.
After Richard Friedman’s brief tenure as executive director (1969–71), J. Terrence Brunner joined the BGA. By this time, the organization had earned a national reputation for its investigations. In 1977, the BGA worked with CBS’ 60 Minutes and Chicago Sun-Times to produce the Mirage Tavern Investigation, in which many bribe-seeking inspectors and employees were exposed. Brunner was also known for starting the investigative internship program.
In 1979, the BGA opened new offices in Washington, D.C., and Springfield, Illinois; the D.C. office, however, was too expensive and was closed n 1984.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, the BGA exposed fraud in the Chicago Public Schools, lax security at the O'Hare International Airport, and corrupt secretary of state George Ryan, among other investigations.
After nearly 30 years as executive director, Brunner retired, and former BGA General Counsel Terrance Norton took his place. Under his reign, the BGA compiled the Alper Integrity Index, the nation’s first comprehensive analysis and ranking of government transparency and accountability laws across 50 states. The study ranks states in laws about open records, whistleblower protection, campaign finance, open meetings, and conflicts of interest. The Index was published in the fall of 2002.
In 2003, Sue Walker replaced Norton, and in 2004, former staff attorney Jay Stewart took her place.
In June 2009, Andy Shaw became the new executive director. Shaw was an education reporter and then the editorial director at NBC 5, where he won two local Emmys, prior to joining ABC 7, where he covers city, county, suburban, state, and national politics and government. At this point, the BGA was in need of revitalization. There are now five working units that make up the organization: Investigations, Advocacy, Communications, Watchdog Training, and Reporting and Administration. In the fall of 2010, BGA launched a new website, and it continues to investigate misdeeds. Shaw also introduced a new idea to the non-profit, to propose new policies instead of just exposing problems.
The Better Government Association is broken up into five units of operation.
The Investigative Unit
The Investigative Unit looks into allegations of waste, fraud, and corruption in city, county, suburban and state government, and the results are made public through partnerships with local media. The BGA works with the New York Times through the Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Sun-Times, Crain’s Chicago Business, and the Chicago television affiliates of ABC, CBS, and FOX.
The BGA has a regularly updated blog managed by the investigative unit called the Notebook.
In September, 2010, the BGA announced new members to the investigative team. Bob Reed, Bob Herguth, and John Conroy are award-winning, veteran journalists added to the team, bringing more than 90 combined years of journalistic experience. These additions doubled the size of the investigative unit.
The Policy Advocacy Unit
The Policy Advocacy Unit proposes policy solution to corruption, inefficiency, lack of accountability, and waste in government based on the results of BGA investigations.
In 2010, the BGA Policy Unit focused on issues such as streamlining government, TIFs and judicial reform.
The Citizen Watchdog Training Unit
The Citizen Watchdog Training Unit teaches citizens to monitor and report on their local governments, working with BGA investigators and editors. Trainings take place throughout the state, particularly in underserved communities. Watchdog Training teaches you how to keep an eye on government and report on what's happening in your community. It helps to learn the ins and outs of the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act.
The Citizen Education and Communication Unit
The Citizen Education and Communication Unit promotes civic engagement by keeping the public informed with reliable facts, in-depth information and thoughtful perspectives. Through traditional and social media, the BGA educated hundreds of thousands of citizens to educate them on developments in local and state government, train citizens on techniques for monitoring government activities, provide information for whistleblowers, announce calls-to-action and generate debate.
Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Awards for Investigative Reporting
The Awards for Investigative Reporting are presented each year and highlight the importance of investigative journalism in advancing the principles of democracy.
The Better Government Association has constant ongoing investigations. Some of the most notable investigations are the BGA's first major investigation, the Mirage Tavern Investigation, and the Rescuing Illinois Project.
BGA's First Investigation
In 1962, Chicago Tribune reporter George Bliss worked with BGA investigators to uncover corruption at the Metropolitan Sanitary District. Bliss detailed waste, fraud, padded payrolls, kickbacks, public land giveaways to special interests, rigged contracts, and the link between organized crime and the commissioners of the sanitary district. In 1962 he won the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes for this series.
The Mirage Tavern Investigation
Pam Zekman, a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, and BGA’s director of investigations Bill Recktenwald worked together to open a "fake" tavern called the Mirage Tavern to attempt to uncover bribery in investigators and inspectors. The two posed as a married couple starting a new business and enlisted the help of many different investigators and inspectors to see what fraud they would uncover. They bought a tavern with many building-code violations, so it could document how many city inspectors and fire marshals could be bought off with just $10 bills.
The Mirage only stayed open for about two months. They were concerned that people were beginning to figure out the true reason of why they were there and could not stay in business any longer.
The first installment of the Mirage Tavern series was published in the Chicago Sun-Times in 1978. Inspectors were suspended, fired, and chastised. The state department of revenue set up a special bureau to investigate cash businesses—and called it the Mirage Audit Unit. Readers also responded with their own stories of fraud and city officials promised improved integrity. The investigation was denied a Pulitzer Prize by jurors who believed the Sun-Times had engaged in unethical deception to get the story.
Rescuing Illinois Project
The Better Government Association conducts ongoing in-depth reports about improving and reforming state government. The Rescuing Illinois Project will conduct a comprehensive analysis of the inner workings of state government to identify irregularities and efficiency problems and to propose responsible solutions and reforms.
In 2012, as part of the Rescuing Illinois Project, the BGA revealed fraud in the state's school system. The Chicago Public School system subsequently implemented a new sick-day policy that it hoped would save tens of millions of dollars a year under a new sick-day policy that will end excessive sick-day payouts. The previous policy allowed departing employees to keep up to 325 unused sick days in cash. The district estimated it spent about $37 million a year on unused sick days for both non-union and union employees.
Awards and notable achievements
The BGA and the Center on Wrongful Convictions won the Edward R. Murrow Award for the June 2011 investigation into the high cost of wrongful convictions. This was a groundbreaking series documenting the human and financial toll of alleged government and police misconduct that led to 85 people being wrongfully incarcerated for violent crimes they did not commit.
In 2012, three BGA reports were nominated for Emmys in the Chicago/Midwest chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. All three stories were collaborations with FOX Chicago and investigative reporter Dane Placko. "Tax Dollars Up in Smoke" was nominated for Outstanding Achievement for News Gathering – Single Investigative Story and Series. "Globetrotting Principal" was nominated for Outstanding Achievement for News Specialty – Report/Series, Education/Schools, Feature or Series. "Nuns vs. Strippers" was nominated for Outstanding Achievement for News Specialty – Report/Series, Religion, Feature or Series.
The Better Government Association won the Peter J. Lisagor award in 2012 for a series of news articles and broadcasts over the previous year on credit card abuses by government officials in the Chicago area. Robert Herguth and Patrick Rehkamp from the BGA won the multimedia collaboration award.