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Underdog puts hurt on state's top cats
Lawyer takes bipartisan route to raise rumpus
August 04, 2002
By Ray Long and Andrew Zajac, Tribune staff reporters
In the span of a few weeks this summer, a lawyer working out of a cramped office in his Ukrainian Village home helped topple the state Republican Party chairman and triggered a probe into the operations of the Democratic speaker of the Illinois House.
Richard K. Means' work shoved a Republican Party already battered by scandal into rudderless panic and placed the once-confident Democratic Party on the defensive as the 2002 election season approaches.
It also raised a question: Who is Richard Means?
Means--who refers to himself as "The Rhino"--has spent three decades in state and local politics, including two races for office as a Republican, a mostly Democratic voting record and a bipartisan approach to inflicting pain.
As he wrote on his personal Web site (http://members.aol.com/rhino): "The Rhino intends no special offense to anyone; he intends to offend everyone equally."
Blending an old-fashioned, almost quaint vision of open government with deft use of computer technology, Means has achieved outsized influence on a shoestring, underwriting his government reform efforts from the proceeds of his modest law practice.
Means' latest fight is over the use of tax money and public employees for the benefit of incumbent state lawmakers.
The documents he unearthed and distributed to reporters and authorities--time sheets, mileage logs and payroll records--could provide a paper trail that shows how Illinois House staffs from both parties skirted, or perhaps broke, laws forbidding campaign work while on the state clock.
When federal prosecutors in Chicago began reviewing the 2000 electoral activities of the staff of House Minority Leader Lee Daniels (R-Elmhurst) five weeks ago, their inquiry, coming on top of the long-running driver's license scandal dogging Republicans, forced Daniels to relinquish his job as state GOP chairman.
Later, federal authorities in Springfield put the Democrats on the griddle by launching an examination of how House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) paid sizable bonuses to his staff and dispatched aides into the field to give extra help to incumbents in hot races.
Both Daniels and Madigan deny wrongdoing.
For all of the upheaval he has caused, Means said his efforts are rooted in faith in the political process.
"I generally believe that the system is self-correcting, that people know right from wrong," Means said. "Somebody has a crazy left-wing idea. Somebody else has a crazy right-wing idea. Pretty soon the craziness of the ideas goes away and people meld various ideas together. And we end up with consensus on how we all ought to behave and be governed."
The problem, according to Means supporter Joseph A. Morris, is that ideas, crazy or otherwise, have been shoved aside by a money-grubbing, dealmaking style of politics.
Patronage, contracts dominate
"The political establishment in Illinois in both parties has for far too long been dominated by people interested in ... patronage and contracts, to the detriment of ideas," said Morris, an attorney and director of the conservative United Republican Fund.
As a result, Morris finds himself part of the "peculiar coalition Rich Means has put together," an amalgam of liberals and conservatives that also includes former Ald. Dick Simpson, once a leader of City Hall liberals.
"Both conservatives and liberals who aren't the party mainstreams do agree on a lot of basic election and governmental rights, such as freedom of information, election laws, access to the ballot, ethics ordinances," said Simpson, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Even those who don't necessarily agree with Means acknowledge his dogged pursuit of his notions of good government.
"I would describe him as a jaundiced true believer," said Andrew Raucci, an attorney who has battled Means in court. "He's not naive. He would like everybody to perform in the manner that we're all supposed to, but I don't think he believes that everybody does."
State Sen. Denny Jacobs (D-East Moline), a 16-year incumbent who tried unsuccessfully to overturn the state's Gift Ban Act, said he is wary of the motives of reformers like Means because their activism often is a precursor to a run for office. "But if in fact he is trying to curb a wrong, God bless him," Jacobs said.
Means did run for the legislature once--in 1972--but the conclusion of his campaign provided a glimpse of his priorities. He won a Republican primary for a state Senate seat. But when liberal Dawn Clark Netsch beat party-backed incumbent Daniel O'Brien in the Democratic primary, Means dropped out of the general election because her policy positions were "virtually the same as mine."
Two years later, Means ran for judge and lost as part of a "Chicago Suicide Squad," of Republican candidates. Their goal was to raise issues of judicial reform, although they had little hope of being elected.
Assortment of allies
Over the years, Means has been associated with figures as diverse as Democrat Mayor Harold Washington, reformist Republican State's Atty. Bernard Carey, GOP Gov. Richard Ogilvie and third party presidential contender Ross Perot.
Means also has joined forces with reform groups such as Common Cause and Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization to successfully prod the state to put lobbyist listings, campaign contribution reports, legislative voting records and debate online.
Means' headquarters is a crowded living room in a third-floor walk-up apartment outfitted with four phone lines and three computers, including one hooked to four monitors.
Many records Means unearthed pertaining to alleged misuse of legislative workers are available at http://www.public-access-project.org/, the Web site Means operates to promote the same kind of free flow of information he prescribes for government.
Draw your own conclusions
"We want to make this perfectly transparent," Means said. "So if somebody wants to draw different conclusions than we draw, hey, that's fine."
Means said the bulk of the Public Access budget, "several thousand dollars a year," comes from his own pocket.
His legal business is stable at the moment, but only three years ago Means was moonlighting as a limousine driver.
"I had kind of a down time, and I was not too proud to do whatever needed to be done to bring in the money," Means said.
Means' current crusade grew out of the frustration of watching outsiders overmatched by incumbents able to call on state workers for campaign help. He filed a lawsuit for the General Assembly's internal staff time sheets but lost because a judge deemed the records private personnel documents.
As Means prepared to go after the records by filing a class-action taxpayers suit, he received a boost from an anonymous whistle-blower who supplied him with some key internal caucus time sheets of Daniels' Chicago-based staffers.
Means maintained they show Daniels staffers working on 2000 legislative campaigns on the same days that they were on the state payroll, along with government travel reimbursement requests for working in areas where there were hot legislative races.
Speaker called `more discreet'
Means has fewer specific documents regarding Madigan's staffers, which he says is because the speaker has been "more discreet."
House Democrats say their staffers traveled to legislative districts to help incumbent lawmakers, not to do campaign work, whereas Republicans used their government staff to help non-elected challengers.
The revelations could not have come at a worse time for Jim Ryan, who is running for governor and is desperate to distance himself from Democrats' charges that he was a sleeping watchdog during the licenses for bribes scandal. But Ryan's office met with Means, then turned over the whistle-blower's records to federal officials.
A month ago, Jim Ryan also engineered Daniels' ouster as party chair.
Prosecutors in Chicago still are looking into Daniels' staff records, while investigators in Springfield continue to review the Madigan staff operations as well as whether the speaker properly dispensed some hefty bonuses to his aides.
Means insists his intent was not to disrupt the power structure of either party. He would be satisfied with a legally binding agreement that the parties would not use public employees to campaign on the public's dime.
"The point is to get it to stop," said Means. "Not to create an explosion."