Medill Watchdog investigation reveals public officials working for benefit of private clients

Medill Watchdog, a new accountability journalism initiative, today published its first extensive investigation that reveals how lax ethics laws in Illinois allow local, county and state politicians who are also lobbyists to use their public positions to benefit private clients.

Investigative faculty Rick Tulsky and John Sullivan worked with Northwestern University student interns to gather and analyze thousands of documents, including lobbying registrations and statements of economic interests, and to review public officials’ legislation, ordinances and public acts

They found many examples of public officials working in the interests of their clients, and of legislators pushing the interests of family members or partners who lobby.

Today’s story notes that Illinois allows conduct by public officials that wouldn’t be tolerated in many states. Cook County clerk David Orr said “we let officials do things that other cities and towns wouldn’t.”

The first installment of Medill Watchdog’s two-part series is published today in partnership with the Chicago News Cooperative in the New York Times’ Chicago edition, and is published and aired by Chicago Public Media’s WBEZ. The second part, which examines politicians and their relatives who are lobbyists, will be published Sunday. Those stories and additional material are also at

Medill Dean John Lavine said Medill Watchdog was formed to put the unique resources of a journalism school at a top-tier research university against the issue of accountability of public officials. “We don’t advocate for a particular political course of action; we’re focused on discovering and making available to the public patterns of conduct that people cannot easily find out for themselves. One of our goals is to share as much data as we can in an organized, contextualized and meaningful way.”

As part of this first project, Medill Watchdog worked with computer science colleagues to scrape and collate information from several public datasets and is building a searchable database that will be useful to the public.

“In an ideal world, governments that want to be truly transparent and accountable to their publics would provide information in ways that are easy for citizens to search, comprehend and use in their decision-making,” Lavine said. “We don’t live in an ideal world. There are flaws in how much information is available and how accessible it is. But Medill Watchdog, with a dedicated investigative faculty and an army of students, can perform an important role in getting a comprehensive, analytical picture in front of the public.”

Tulsky, Medill Watchdog director, said he and assistant director Sullivan look for stories that indicate systemic issues, not isolated incidents. “I expect this lobbying examination to be the kind of review for which Medill Watchdog will be known,” Tulsky said. “The project is important and exciting for a number of reasons. It is a kind of in-depth journalism critical to Chicagoland residents. It is a model for how this kind of work can be done in the future. And it gives us a chance to mentor a terrific group of interns in how to undertake these kinds of projects.”

Interns are chosen each quarter throughout the year from among current and just-graduated students across all schools at Northwestern. 

Tulsky and Sullivan are longtime news reporters who returned to their native Chicago to establish the initiative. Tulsky, whose many national awards include a Pulitzer Prize, was a reporter and editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times and San Jose Mercury News as well as other journalism organizations in Mississippi, Michigan and California. Sullivan, whose first newspaper job was at the Chicago Reporter, went on to undertake work that has won widespread recognition, including a Pulitzer finalist, at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Raleigh News & Observer.

Medill Watchdog’s work is supported by the McCormick Foundation, Northwestern University, Medill and Medill alum Mark Ferguson.