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