An Open Letter Response to Illinois Childhood Cancer Research Fund

Dear Ms. Lutarewych & Ms. Quirke,

Thank you both for your letter in response to my report on WGN-TV News at 9p last night.  First, I’m very sorry to hear that both of your families have suffered through childhood cancer.  Even as a parent myself, I cannot imagine how terribly difficult it has been on everyone.

I promised you I would respond to your complaints about our investigation.  Here it is.

-You said that we were “willing tools” who accomplished the dirty work of Illinois politicians by doing our story.  I’m not exactly sure what you meant.  But if you’re saying this story was fed to us by a politician, the answer is no.  In fact, you may be surprised to hear the original tip that launched our investigation came from someone on behalf of pediatric cancer.  They complained they’d been waiting for and not yet received money from the fund you worked to set up, the Illinois Childhood Cancer Research Fund.

-So, you asked why we didn’t interview this person who complained or any other of the charity funds, like the Illinois Military Family Fund mentioned in our story?  We tried, repeatedly.  I’ve saved every email and phone call record with our attempts to get someone on camera or on record.  They all said no.  Why?  They said no out of fear lawmakers might retaliate against them in the future.  Will anyone who reads this letter NOW be willing to step forward to express their displeasure with what lawmakers had been doing for years?  We hope so and would be the first to put them on TV.

-In your letter, you complained that I’d mislead the public by stating their donation does not go immediately to the charity of their choice, but rather they must apply for grants and wait.  I called it part of Springfield’s red tape.  Where did I get that?  I got it from the people running the charities who complained about how long it takes to get the money.

-Our report was “confusing” to you because you said we “lumped” the dozen or so charities in with the 700 other Illinois funds like the gas tax fund or the doctor’s license fee fund.  In our opinion, as far as the taxpayers are concerned, there is no difference.  As you heard in our report, the doctors begged lawmakers to stop taking their license fee money used for watch-dogging bad doctors.  That affects taxpayers and consumers just like the charity funds.  So does the taking of gas tax money for things other than roads.

-Further, as Richard Dye from the University of Illinois-Chicago pointed out, there are so many funds and so much shuffling of money between, in and out of the funds that it takes his team of researchers a full year to grasp how the state spends its money each year.  Mr. Dye agreed it’s like a shell game. He suggests getting rid of so many funds so everybody can understand where money comes from and goes, including politicians.  He’s no partisan politician.  He’s a neutral researcher with an expertise on state budgets across the nation.

-Using your words, this “reprehensible practice” of sweeping and borrowing from both charity funds and non-charitable state funds had been going on for at least a decade prior to 2011.  It only stopped  on the charity side after a downstate newspaper shined a journalistic light on it like we did last night.  But as Senator Christine Radogno emphatically stated in our story, it can happen again as quickly as tomorrow if the state needs money.  Last we checked, the state needs money.  Lots of it.  Our investigation took it a step further by pointing out just this month, instead of paying back the $8 million the state TOOK from the doctor’s license fund, it voted instead to double the license fee.  That just happened.  Is that fair?

-The bottom line, very, very few people know this was standard practice to sweep and borrow from funds.  That, in our opinion is reason enough to do the story.  To know it is possible it could happen again in an instant given the financial climate in Springfield where the state ranks dead last or very near it on many financial categories, we feel it’s our journalistic responsibility to tell that to the viewer as well.

Sincerely,

Mark Suppelsa

WGN-TV News

(Written in response to Chicago Now blogger Mary Tyler Mom’s post: An Open Letter to WGN’s Mark Suppelsa)

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11 comments

  • Melissa J.

    Great response Mark! The letter from those moms was poorly written and lacked common sense. You were doing us taxpayers a huge favor by informing us where our money is really going. I’d much rather donate to an actual charity than chance having my money lost to the state. Your prompt response was right on target.

  • Walter S

    Mark, keep up the great work. It's unfortunate that the two mothers do not realize that they may actually receive money and get their donations because you called the state out on the way they do business. Taking money that they need to pay bills -which they "the state", do not have and shuffle it around is an easy way of getting it done, and then maybe refund the monies if they can. Now they just might think twice before they take the money and actually pass it on to the charities as intended. The odd part of the whole open letter is that you helped all the charities and maybe they will get their donations now.

  • Kate

    Do I have this right? You didn't interview anyone associated with one of these charities because you only want quotes from people who is " willing to step forward to express their displeasure with what lawmakers had been doing for years"? Huh. That's a strange way to research a story — to set out to find people who will agree with the point of the story, instead of giving you another perspective.

    But the good news is, if you want quotes from some smart women who WON'T give you that quote, but WILL talk about their plans to watch the pols like a hawk to make sure the money donated to the Illinois Childhood Cancer Research Fund gets *spent* by the ICCRF, I think you know who to call.

    • Mark Suppelsa

      No Kate. I think you're misunderstanding me. Our research in talking to the charities gave us lots of insight as to how many felt about the state's handling of the taxpayer donations. What I tried to get across in my letter was that no one would go on the record or on camera with their thoughts out of fear the lawmakers would retaliate against them talking to us. Or maybe you did understand my point but are simply rallying for the cause of your friends. Either way, that's what I meant.

      • Melissa

        The problem is that fewer people will donate at all. From the charities' perspective, money obtained later and with more difficulty than should have been the case is still better than no money at all. Of course it is better for people to donate directly to a specific charitable organization – but so very few people do because that takes extra effort, they have to think of a charity and navigate to the website and submit a donation. Often they have to give a minimum donation. By contrast, those who just got a tax refund and want to be a little generous but not too much, can easily donate $1 of their refund using the tax form. There are hundreds of thousands of people in IL who donate tiny amounts of money this way and it adds up to a make a huge difference to the cause.

        Perhaps the best response would be a follow up story that encourages people to still donate but demands further ethical reform from our pathetic and corrupt state leaders.

  • Gina

    This is really very sad news. I applaud Sheila Quirke for writing her letter (I'm a loyal follower) and I understand both her anger AND the unfortunate truths behind the expose you wrote. What's really deplorable is that ultimately more children will die because the public cannot trust the leaders in our state. Yet we continue to vote the same people back into office again and again.

    Sheila – I'm sure you're reading these comments. Can you post information as to how people can donate directly to the ICCRF without going through the state's coffers? Is there any way?

  • Anonymous

    A very disappointing response as it shows this reporter is only interested in his story and not the truth. I’m all for government accountability and making our government be good stewards of our money but this is not the way to do it.

  • Just Observing

    There are innumerable charities that do a lot of great work competing for dollars. People should know where their contributions will get the biggest bang for their buck. I am glad Suppelsa did this piece so I can be better informed how to contribute my charitable dollars to get the most out of it. Now I know for sure not to contribute to charities via my tax form. Those charities on the tax form may be doing good work and have their heart in the right place, but contributions may be better off directed elsewhere or to those charities directly.

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