Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Andy Shaw Talks About Going From Big Media to Better Government

The former ABC anchor took a job in charge of the Better Government Association. It’s a new role, but he’s still holding powerful people accountable.

Photo: Kuni Takahashi / Chicago Tribune 

Andy Shaw, the former political reporter at ABC, on his life at the Better Government Association.

When I met Andy Shaw for coffee at a local bakery on Wells Street late last week, the owner, with her litany of complaints at how the state treats/taxes small business, thought Shaw looked familiar. She couldn’t quite place the whippet-thin former TV newsman, now 65, who has been absent from the air, more or less, for four years since becoming CEO and President of the Better Government Association.

“I was the political reporter at ABC,” he told her and handed her his business card. Shaw might have recruited a new member, and she might have the ear of an organization that looks for “bad behavior,” as Shaw puts it, and inequities at all levels of government in Illinois.

Shaw’s wife, Mary, describes his position as a “volunteer with health insurance”— she’s noticed that he spends more time working for a fraction of the pay since he left 33 years of reporting for the local affiliates of ABC and, before that, NBC, to take the BGA job.

Shaw admits the BGA is first and foremost a fundraising job. I’ve seen him in action. (He’s a social acquaintance and a former neighbor.) I knew one of the questions I’d ask him was, “Do friends hesitate to have dinner with you because they figure you’ll put the arm on them?” (Keep reading: It’s the final Q and A.

Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation:

CF: What’s the difference between being at Channel 7 and heading the BGA?

AS: Now I can advocate for better government instead of simply reporting on politicians and their bad behavior … It was great fun covering politics … but at the end of the day it’s, “He said, She said,” objective storytelling with two sides, which is fine. That’s what journalism should be. Now, when we investigate bad behavior or bad policies or bad laws we can advocate for changes because … if you can’t change [them] you haven’t really accomplished anything. So the goal here is to actually give us the better government we deserve and to force public officials to make better decisions about the tax dollars which is our money not theirs.

CF: You’ve been doing this for four years. Describe some changes you’ve accomplished

AS: Sixty of our investigations have resulted in tangible changes. The website lists them under “RESULTS.” The legislative scholarship program which was scandalized by public officials has been canceled. We have two new laws that protect suspects during interrogations from the kinds of abuse that leads to wrongful convictions, forced confessions, … requirement of videotaping of interrogations in eight felony categories, not just homicide. The treasurer of the Lyons Township School District which handles $200 million in school district money has been indicted by a Cook County grand jury for [allegedly] stealing a million and half dollars. Two suburban pension plans that were excessively generous and were unsustainable were canceled by suburbs in the wake of investigations. … A number of the loopholes that allowed pension abuse have been closed. … We reported on a sweetheart deal contract in Chicago that was costing Chicago more for milk than surrounding suburbs even though we buy a hundred times more. We did the story. Rahm ordered the contract killed the next day. We saved a million dollars this year. We reported on the payouts for unused sick days by CPS. They were paying $30 million a year in unused sick days … while schools were going wanting for teachers and aides and psychologists and social workers. … The savings of our investigations, not all realized in one year, some take several years to be actually realized, conservative estimate is $50 million dollars. It’s a drop in the bucket in Illinois, but it’s a great start.

CF: These investigations are always in partnership with a newspaper or a TV station?

AS: Every one has a partner. We partner with every media outlet in the city of Chicago except the Chicago Tribune—all the television stations, several radio stations. [Disclosure; the BGA has partnered with Chicago magazine.] We tend to do the bulk of the research because we have the staff. What they bring to the table is some of the research, but also the capacity to give the story an outlet that will reach a lot of people. Their asset is a platform; ours asset is the labor. We write most of the stories.

CF: How many of these investigations have been done under your leadership?

AS: We’ve done 250 investigations since I’ve gotten here. I would say that least 50 percent of our investigations come from a tip to us or a media partner, sometimes anonymous, sometimes attributable … The other half are things we choose to do because they need to be done. In other words, excessive units of government The questionable need for townships. The questionable need for 900 school districts, 7000 units of government. We’ve looked at conflict of interest laws, lobbying abuse, the improper use of campaign dollars. Those are all things we’ve chosen to do and then through Freedom of Information requests and a lot of good, hard leg work, we’ve come up with stories.

CF: How many dead ends?

AS: I would say that probably the majority of tips are not sustainable, or they may be sustainable but that doesn’t mean they meet the qualifications for a full investigation. One person may be caught watching TV in his office. Is that an investigation for the BGA? No.

CF: So you find a lot of disgruntled, personal vendetta kind of stuff?

AS: I would say a number of the tips come from people who are mad about something. They may be mad at somebody or mad at a branch of government, but that is certainly not a disqualifier because if the tip is made up, it doesn’t become a story. … We have an email and a phone tip line. I write a column for the Sun-Times and all of our media partnerships include links to the BGA site … I get probably five tips a day. … I get the bulk of the tips but the investigators, because they have sources, get a lot of their own tips.

CF: How is the BGA different today than it was under your predecessors?

AS: The long-term predecessor was Terry Brunner; he’s the one who did the bulk of the really high visibility, high impact investigations. He left [in 2000], and there were several people who followed him before me. … The old BGA did a lot of stings. The Mirage Tavern. … They basically set up a lot of things designed to entrap people or catch people in bad behavior. We do none of that. Which is not to say we wouldn’t do a sting, but we haven’t done any. They’re journalistically questionable and so I stay clear of them. … The [old] BGA investigated and occasionally filed law suits. We investigate, we file lawsuits … We educate people. We train more than 1,200 regular citizens in how to watch government. We have watchdog training sessions all around the state. We have idea forums every two months … [on such subjects as] pension abuse, privatization, term limits, judicial integrity, wrongful convictions. We’re going to do one on property taxes … Why is your bill so high? What makes up your bill? Why does it keep going up when it doesn’t seem like you’re getting better service for it? … The old BGA focused on Chicago and a little bit of Cook County. One of the things I realized is that there is an enormous amount of bad behavior in the suburbs and no one is watching, so we have done dozens of suburban investigations … Also, we now have a partnership with Springfield media … One of my goals is to have partnerships in every midsized city in the state of Illinois—Peoria, Decatur, Carbondale.

CF: It sounds, though, like the BGA under you is kinder and gentler to public officials?

AS: The old BGA did “Gotcha!” investigations … They did a lot of really good stories; the problem was they did it in such an aggressive way that they lost a lot of supporters along the way because they were perceived as being too mean spirited, too negative toward individual politicians. And as a result I think some of their foundation money and some of their donor support peeled away because they were regarded as excessively partisan. … I had a lot of fence mending to do. I had to convince a lot of potential donors in the philanthropic community, individuals and foundations, that it wasn’t personal; this wasn’t us trying to demonize anybody or vilify anybody. We are trying to expose bad public policy and bad public behavior with an eye toward changing it and saving people tax dollars. Which is very different from deciding that politician A or B is an evil person and should be somehow besmirched.

CF: Do you find yourself in situations in which there’s a reason to investigate someone or something, but it’s going to upset someone from whom you get money?

AS: I’ve upset a lot of our donors. And we just do the stories. Sometimes we give them a heads up so they’re not blindsided.

CF: Do they then cut off supporting you?

AS: No one has done that. … I take that back. I have lost one donor, who shall remain anonymous, because she was angry at a story we did related to public housing, and she’s a big backer of public housing and she thought it was unfair. I disagree. … She had written me several big checks and there were no more big checks.

CF: So when you write about Rahm or others who are players, no one complains? Really?

AS: I’ve done a lot of columns critical of Rahm on privatization and on transparency. Rahm’s friends include Michael Sachs and John Canning and David Herro and Joe Mansueto; these are all major donors of mine. In other words, most of my major donors are friends of Rahm’s They’re friends of [Rich] Daley’s. They’re friends of [Mike] Madigan’s … Jerry Reinsdorf is a major donor. We’re both [White] Sox fans, so he was predisposed to like me, but he is not some person who tends to give to good government groups. He needs to maintain good relations with the Mayor and the Speaker for purposes of his stadiums. So Jerry and I had lunch and I asked him to help me. He said, “Well, are you going to be mean to Mayor Daley? He’s one of my friends.” I said, “I’m not going to be mean to him. Here’s what I promise you, Jerry. We’re going to look at the Mayor and we’re going to look at Mike Madigan and we’re going to look at all your friends, but we’re going be honest and fair and accurate. And we’re going to call them out when they deserve it, but we won’t do it in a nasty way; we’ll do it in a strong, fair way. And Jerry said, “That’s good enough for me,” and he wrote me a check for $25,000.

CF: So you’ve never picked up the phone and been greeted by Rahm swearing at you?

AS: No, he sends emissaries. Rahm complains through people who are friendly with him. … There are never screaming matches. Toni Preckwinkle called me a couple of times to complain about something. … Lisa Madigan called me to complain about something … Tom Dart complained through staff members.

CF: What happens when you run into Rahm at a party in Michigan? [Both men have houses there.]

AS: I run into him all the time. I see him at the East Bank [Club]. I see him in Michigan. … We’re on very friendly terms.

CF: Have you had to retract anything?

AS: In 250 investigations, the only retraction was in a story four years about judges who weren’t working a full day, who left early and did all kinds of things. The courtrooms were shut, the jail was full, but the courts were empty, and we misidentified the vehicle of a judge. … He sued us. The lawsuit has been pending for three years. I think it’ll be dismissed … We are scrupulously careful about accuracy. Our credibility is on the line. If I screw these stories up, I’ll be out of business tomorrow.

CF: So you’re effectively the editor-in-chief of BGA investigations?

AS: I read everything that goes out the door. Bob Herguth, our editor of investigations, goes over every story multiple times; he grills his reporters until he’s satisfied, and he sends it to Bob Reed, our director of investigations, and Bob reads it. And I read it, … and by the time it goes out the door we’re pretty damn sure it’s accurate.

CF: Did the BGA come to you and ask you to take this job?

AS: I stumbled across this accidentally. When I left ABC, I left the country for a month just to decompress. During that month, my predecessor, Jay Stewart, left the BGA to work for pat Quinn … Someone said to me in passing, “Did you talk to the BGA? … They’re looking for a new person to run it and you might be the right person.” So I called the board chair, I expressed my interest, and went through the process and got the job.

CF: I remember at the time hearing that you really wanted to take a rest and then get another media job; you wanted to retract your retirement but offers weren’t coming.

AS: My plan was to take a break after ABC and then to find another media job which was a little less labor intensive. Anchoring, hosting, doing something that would be a little less chasing. … So I was planning to take another media job after a break and the reason I didn’t is because the depth of the recession was just when I was leaving ABC and there were no jobs.

CF: What happens in course of a work week when you think to yourself, “What was I thinking? Why did I take this job?”

AS: The single biggest frustration? The people who give us bad government are the same people you have to rely on to give us better government. … The people who control the levers of power have to be the ones that change the way government operates, so you’re asking the people who benefitted from a corrupt system to change it. … You’re telling them to give less to their friends and that patronage is bad and nepotism is bad and padded contracts are bad and padded payrolls are bad and pay to play is bad and conflicts of interest are bad and lobbying abuse is bad. You’re telling all the things that are part of their basic way of doing business. … The problem with government is it’s run for the benefit of public officials not the public. … It is an inherent problem that I have no idea how to solve it.

CF: A well educated, engaged electorate would help solve that.

AS: Yeah, the apathy and disaffection of the public. Do you know that 50 million voting age Americans are not registered to vote. Six million Americans told the last census that they would have voted in ’08 but they weren’t registered. … We just say, over and over, that this will never change if the public doesn’t get engaged … You’ve got to register, you’ve got to pay attention, and you’ve got to vote. And if you don’t do those things we’re always going to get the same people. That’s another reason why term limits is still the most popular polling question. Seventy percent of Illinois resident favor term limits.

CF: Do you?

AS: I don’t know, I think maybe term limits for legislative leaders would be healthy because they control the legislative process. The BGA has not taken a position on term limits because the board is divided … I know there’s no data proving that term limits make a difference. Term limits are a bromide. They’re a feel good solution I will say about term limits that we probably can’t have worse government with a new crop of people, so maybe it’s time for that, although any term limits bill would grandfather in all the existing politicians. So it would only affect the next generation.

CF: You mentioned that you want to open an office in Springfield but now you have just the Chicago office. How many people work for BGA?

AS: We have 15 full-time employees and 5 part time and freelance. We have several freelance investigators who do things on a project basis. We had two employees when I arrived four years ago—one investigator and an office manager.

CF: With a staff of two, the fundraising must have been…

AS: Nonexistent.

CF: Who paid the rent?

AS: We had a board (and still have a board) and the board was very very generous and well meaning. The board kept the operation afloat. ….The previous board was primarily lawyers, …white male lawyers. [Shaw has reconfigured the board to make it more diverse in terms of gender, race, ethnicity.]… We have a very low per capita requirement. $5,000. You make the commitment that you’re either going to give or find $5,000 a year for us.

CF: So as a fundraiser you’ve become this sort of energizer bunny. I’ve seen you in action.

AS: That’s my most important job.

CF: Do you hate it?

AS: No, I love it because I’m not begging for money. I’m giving people an opportunity to participate in something they should want to participate in. … They’re not doing me a favor. They’re doing themselves and the state of Illinois a favor when they support a vibrant watchdog organization. … I go anywhere and everywhere and I ask everybody for a lot of money. And the answer’s frequently no, but thankfully it’s been yes enough to move us from a budget when I got there of under $300,000 to a budget which in 2014 will be probably $2.4 million. … My major donor list is the cream of the crop in the philanthropic community. It includes Lester and Jim Crown, J.B Pritzker and Michael Ferro and Bruce Rauner until he ran for governor at which point I can’t take any money from him, David Herro, Michael Sacks.

CF: Do you need an alligator skin to do raise money? Do you sometimes encounter true nastiness?

AS: Oh, yes, of course, I developed the hide of a rhinoceros as a news reporter. I had every major politician from presidents on down on my back for stories … I don’t care if anybody likes me. This is not a popularity contest. My wife likes me, my kids like me, my friends like me. I don’t need to be liked by the people I cover or the people I watchdog. … I’ve been much worse than insulted. People have done all kinds of things that I’m not going to talk about now because I don’t want to give people any ideas, but you know public officials have a lot of power and there have been a lot of frontal attacks of a political nature that I thwarted with help from supporters.

CF: Do you find that your personal life has changed because if you or Mary make a date to have dinner with Joe and Shmo they might hesitate, “Oh, he’s gonna put the arm on us.”

AS: I don’t put the arm on friends. I don’t use my social gatherings to raise money. I do talk a lot about the cause in hopes that people will be supportive and a lot of my friends have been, and I think I’m probably going to send a number of emails to friends suggesting that they come to this particular luncheon [BGA’s annual fundraiser on November 7] because it’s the 90th anniversary.

Post script: I can attest to that; soon after our talk I received the email and during our talk he asked more than once whether I’d be at the lunch.

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comments
7 months ago
Posted by Glencoebev

,
Great interview, as usual.

7 months ago
Posted by volunteer

I know that I, for one, would love to serve as a volunteer with health insurance.

Especially if that volunteer gig came with a stipend of $174,175 and the benefits package ran about $1300/month. (source: BGA form 990 signed 8/27/2012).

And shouldn't every non-profit have an executive director whose salary (sorry - stipend!) is over 10% of it's budget? (source: BGA annual report, 2011)

I'm happy to see BGA revitalized, and I realize Shaw has been a huge part of that. The expanded team is building on a proud tradition and doing great work.

But spare us, dear Andy and Mary, any sense that you're not quite well compensated. Couldn't you have left that out?

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