The Edgar County Watchdogs are a self-appointed team of investigative journalists. The Watchdogs are a non-profit run by Kirk Allen and John Kraft, two retired armed forces veterans who routinely accuse Illinois municipal governments of misconduct. They work independently from any other news source, at times trying to perform citizen’s arrests on local government officials. In a video of one incident, Kraft can be heard saying, “You’re under arrest, sir,” as a member of the Southeastern IL Clark County Park District walks away from him.
They hop across small towns in Illinois, requesting huge amounts of township information through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. If they find the smallest mistake in a city’s bills or are denied any information they request, they are very quick to jump to accusations of corruption, damaging the reputation of the township and its leaders.
In an article published on the Watchdogs’ website on Tuesday, March 21, they accused Carlinville Mayor Deanna Demuzio of hiding the city’s credit card statements from the public. Kraft also insinuated that Demuzio was hiding the statements because there were purchases made that she didn’t want the public to know about.
Kraft’s article noted that his FOIA request had been wrongfully denied because of his commercial interests. When dealing with FOIA requests, commercial interests refers to a person’s ability to participate competitively in any commercial activity, like the purchase and sale of goods or services. When asked to clarify just how Kraft and his group were determined to be commercial Demuzio said, “Their [Edgar County Watchdogs] website has a big blue donate button up in the corner. Under law, that makes him commercial.” The watchdog’s funding comes mainly from one-time donations, grant funding and lawsuit settlements. Because of Kraft’s commercial interests it was determined that his request was for monetary gain and not public interest. Kraft filed a lawsuit against the city of Carlinville for violating FOIA.
Kraft’s FOIA was determined to be “unduly burdensome” and he was asked to shorten it for the convenience of city workers. According to Demuzio and election board attorney Dan Schuering, Kraft’s group wasn’t registered as press with the Secretary of State until the day after he requested the information. Being commercial and not officially members of the press allowed Scheuring to deny Kraft’s fee waiver request. Typically the cost of a FOIA is reduced if the information requested is in public interest. According to Scheuring because of Kraft’s commercial interests the law also allows him to prolong the amount of time it would take Kraft to receive his information. Kraft will get his information, but due to his commercial ties and the burden of the task, he will have to pay for it and will receive it after the impending election.
“It is my firm opinion that something bad has been happening with the financials of the City of Carlinville and Mayor Demuzio, along with the Clerk and attorney, are doing whatever they can to keep from releasing any information until after the election,” Kraft said in his article. Because Kraft did not yet have access to the credit card statements, his claims cannot be verified. Kraft was contacted via email to see if he had any proof for these allegations. He cited his experience with other small town administrations, saying, “The basis of my ‘firm opinion’ is from experience with other public bodies and their actions on releasing or not releasing information pursuant to FOIA. Each and every time we come up with resistance to simple requests for things like credit card statements and cell phone statements, we find out there were improper purchases.” Kraft also cited Carlinville’s annual financial report, filed with the state comptroller. On page seven of the audit under the headline, “Schedule of Findings and Responses,” the audit noted proper procedures were bypassed in some instances with contractors, purchases, new loans and so on. The audit also noted that, in some cases, city council members were acting on their own without the consent of the other council members.
Demuzio was surprised at the Watchdogs’ attack of her character. “When we received the FOIA request our attorney was already aware of Mr. Kraft and his group… he’s quite well-known throughout the state. The FOIA he requested was very large… Mr. Schuring is very familiar with FOIA and determined that his request was commercial.” Demuzio said she has no idea where Kraft and his group are getting their credit card claims and that they are “just throwing things out against the wall.” When presented Carlinville’s annual audit and questioned about the bypassing of proper procedures, Demuzio explained: “I can tell you about that; Mr. Cerar [Alderman George Cerar, another mayoral candidate and critic of Demuzio] went out and contracted several individuals without the approval of the council. When the bills came in, he denied that he ever did it. This is the first questionable audit finding we ever had and it goes back to him.” No litigation or punishment occurred as a result of this contracting.
“The auditors never addressed this last year… but I do think that things were bought without approval from the proper councils,” Cerar responded. After being asked if he may have been responsible for some of these he said, “I didn’t have any purchases… The only thing I can think of would have been two years ago.”
“This put me in an awkward position,” said Demuzio. “I don’t want to badmouth these other candidates, but a lot of these problems that he’s talking about have to do with Mr. Cerar. So, when Mr. Kraft brings these allegations against me, he’s not helping these other candidates like he’s supposed to. I will say that Alderman Cerar is tied to the person that brought in Mr. Kraft and his Watchdogs.”
Sherry Brianza is a Carlinville native and frequently attends City Council meetings. Brianza confirmed that she contacted Kraft and said, “I had concerns for the situation here and did reach out for Mr. Kraft’s opinion.” Brianza is supporting Cerar in the upcoming mayoral election. Cerar confirmed that he was friends with Brianza and said, “The mayor doesn’t want these records released. She doesn’t want all of this bad press. It’s a cover-up basically,” he said.
Occurring days before the election, these allegations raised the suspicions of Carlinville resident and former newspaper owner Dave Ambrose who filed a formal complaint with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and the State Board of Elections regarding what appears to be intentional efforts on the part of Edgar County Watchdogs to impact the election outcome.
In his complaint, Ambrose noted, “I am a former newspaper owner and I have great respect for the Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act. And I have equal disdain for those who attempt to use those laws for political or monetary gain… I am a resident of Carlinville, where the Watchdogs have filed multiple FOIA requests for large volumes of materials related to nominating petitions, the City Elections Board’s handling of an objection to the incumbent Mayor’s petitions, meeting minutes, credit card receipts and other documents. In some cases, these documents are easily accessible online or by appearing in person at city hall and asking to see them. The FOIA requests, in many instances, appear to be a means of grandstanding and creating the appearance of impropriety without foundation.” Ambrose’s complaint has been referred to the Public Integrity Bureau.
“Bottom line is, I’m not hiding credit card statements from the public,” said Demuzio. “If that were the case, the five members of the finance committee, where all the bills have to be signed off on, would be asking where the credit card statements are at.” Demuzio confirmed that each member of the finance committee sees credit card statements and receipts where council members can see what was purchased and how much each purchase cost. “The whole purpose of this is to get me knocked off the ballot. I don’t know if this will affect my campaign,” said Demuzio.
With the April 4 election quickly approaching, Kraft and Allen appear to have deliberately attempted to interfere with the election. At this time they are still posting articles attacking the mayor and her administration, without evidence or proof of claims.
Correction: We erroneously reported that The Edgar County Watchdogs weren’t “registered as press with the Secretary of State.” No group needs to register as press with the SOS. However according to John Kraft, his group was “not in compliance” with corporation registration for filing a late annual report with the SOS. The ‘Burnian regrets this error.