Transparency in Government Spending? There’s an App for That

An interview with OpenTheBooks.com's Adam Andrzejewski
March 10, 2019 Updated: March 12, 2019

No matter where you live in the country, a big chunk of your paycheck goes to the government. Adam Andrzejewski, founder and CEO of OpenTheBooks.com, wants to bring more transparency to how that money is used in the United States, and to expose waste, with an eye toward bringing about more fiscal accountability.

As part of the series “American Thought Leaders,” Epoch Times senior editor Jan Jekielek sat down with Andrzejewski to discuss how his work has brought about more accountability in his home state of Illinois and nationally, as well as his views on the federal “use it or lose it” spending and the OpenTheBooks’ “Mapping the Swamp” report—a useful app showing how much any public servant makes.

Jan Jekielek: So, OpenTheBooks.com—obviously, it’s about transparency—but what is it that you actually do? Can you give us a thumbnail?

Adam Andrzejewski: Just a simple description of OpenTheBooks.com is “every dime, online, in real time.” So, it’s a transparency mission, with the goal to allow regular people to use hard data to hold the political class accountable for tax-and-spend decisions. If you think about it, every single decision you make in your home and your business, you make using hard data—even tracking your purchases at the grocery store. Yet, when we vote for people, oftentimes we don’t often know where they spent our money. So, having the ability to follow the money, to hold politicians accountable for their decisions, will revolutionize United States public policy and politics. And so we’ve been very successful at capturing government spending. We’ve built the world’s largest private database of U.S. public-sector expenditures.

Mr. Jekielek: This information is publicly available in general, but sometimes, the governments aren’t so willing to give you that information, as I understand it?

Mr. Andrzejewski: The information is publicly available underneath the law, underneath the statutes, but it’s all siloed up, of course. Last year, we filed 60,000 Freedom of Information Act requests with nearly every single substantial public body in the country.

Mr. Jekielek: You filed 60,000? How big is your team?

Mr. Andrzejewski: We have about 30 people on the data-capture side, and we’ve literally built a Freedom of Information Act machine to be able to file and follow up with 60,000 public bodies last year. We asked them for their public employee’s salary and pension records. So, for the first time ever, we compiled virtually every single salary and pension record of every single public employee at every level of government across the entire country. And people watching this program, you can come to OpenTheBooks.com, and you can actually see who, in your neighborhood, in your own zip code, makes how much, in what position, working for which public body.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s unbelievable. And so how many of these records are there total? How many are we talking about here?

Mr. Andrzejewski: So, we captured last year 22 million. And then what we did is we sliced off the top 2 [million]. So, we display all those records on our website and in our mobile app. Our mobile app is free for Apple and Android—it’s called Open The Books. You can download it and put it right on your cell phone or mobile device. So you can, at cocktail parties with your friends, actually show who makes what locally, which is kind of interesting. But overall, it was 22 million, and then we sliced off the top 2 million most highly compensated. Those are the people that made six figures and above across the entire country. We mapped them by their employer zip code. So, you can click pins on this interactive map, and you can see who, again, locally, makes how much—this time seeing the most highly compensated public employees.

Mr. Jekielek: You’re saying that 2 million public employees in America make over 100 grand a year.

Mr. Andrzejewski:  The top one is the football coach at the University of Alabama—Nick Saban. Now, he lost in the national championship game, but last year, he made $11.6 million.

Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. I think this may be a case in point of why some transparency or an organization like yours is useful, because we can dig into some of these surprising numbers.

Mr. Andrzejewski:  One of the big data points in the country right now is the gross level of student debt, which has surpassed credit card debt across the country. Well, we know in our data file at OpenTheBooks.com there are 43,000 employees in education, at universities and colleges, that make more than $200,000 per year.

Mr. Jekielek: Wow.

Mr. Andrzejewski:  And 10,000 of those are in the state of California alone.

Mr. Jekielek: These are really amazing numbers. When you hear it presented this way, it’s almost shocking. You don’t get shocked much these days though, right?

Mr. Andrzejewski: We’re headquartered in Illinois, and Illinois is the “Super Bowl” of corruption. For instance, we did an investigation with the local Fox affiliate in Chicago last year. We looked at the supersized salaries in Illinois K-through-12 education, and the top guy of all time was making $407,000 per year. And based on our research, the school board fired him. We had simply asked to see how many sick and vacation days he’d accumulated. We knew he was going to retire on October 31 last year. He had represented 561 sick and vacation days. We thought, at his average daily rate, he was going to try to ask the school board for a check out the door of three-quarters of a million dollars. We thought that was outrageous. He was actually asking the school board for $1.73 million. So, when we presented our findings, they investigated and they fired him two weeks before he retired.

Mr. Jekielek: So, that wasn’t on the up-and-up, this $1.7 million?

Mr. Andrzejewski: And that’s just one public employee at one unit of government across the whole country. We feel at OpenTheBooks.com we are giving citizens—for the first time ever—the tools to be able to investigate their local units of government and hold them accountable, to squeeze out waste, fraud, corruption, and taxpayer abuse.

Mr. Jekielek: You had a new report published just days ago, about spending in the final month of the fiscal year last year, by the federal government. And I think it was $97 billion that was spent in September? Am I remembering correctly?

Mr. Andrzejewski: We’ve captured at OpenTheBooks.com the federal checkbook all the way back to the year 2001. Our honorary chairman is the legendary former U.S. senator from Oklahoma, Dr. Tom Coburn. And we give oversight to tranches of federal data. I’m here with you in Washington D.C. today, as we launch this new oversight report [about] the phenomenon in the federal agencies of “Use It or Lose It” spending. And so we took a look at September 2018—that’s the last month of the fiscal year—and, incredibly, the federal agencies blew through their budgets. They spend the money this year, so they get the same appropriation from Congress next year. And they blew through in one week—the last week of September—$53 billion. To put that in perspective, that’s one dollar out of every 10 dollars on the year, spent on contracts they actually spent in the last week. And it’s a big problem, when federal agencies can’t even spend all the money that Congress is appropriating for them.

Mr. Jekielek: [That’s] $53 billion in a week? And then, $97 billion on the month. How does that stack up, compared to other months of the fiscal year? I just want our audience to get a perspective. These are big numbers.

Mr. Andrzejewski: The average month the federal agency spends about $45 billion on contracts. So, this was about more than double an average month. We also took a look at September 2018, and compared it against the Obama years, like September 2015, 2016, then the Trump year 2017, and every single year, it’s gotten a lot worse. In September of 2015, there was about $63 billion spent in the last month, then $73 billion, then $83 billion; last year, it was the worst ever at $97 billion. Now, let’s break down that month. So, in the first week, the last month of the fiscal year, they spent $8 billion. In the second week, they spent $18 billion, in the third week, they spent $17 billion, and then, in the fourth week, they spent $53 billion. There’s all kinds of crazy spending in that final week. For instance, we found that the Department of Defense spent nearly $5 million on lobster tail and snow crab. So, we dug a little deeper. Last year, the Pentagon—the Department of Defense—they spent $22 million on lobster tail alone. We dug deeper. Over the course of the past four years, they have spent $55 million on lobster tail. So, there’s a lot of waste. There’s a lot of waste at the Pentagon, and there’s a lot of waste across the entire continuum of federal agency spending.

Mr. Jekielek: I understand that there’s some kind of cost-cutting going on, right? You were talking about this sort of dramatic rise in how spending increases in September or the actual raw amount of spending at $97 billion. Is that a result of the fact that people just have a lot more on the books to spend, because of their budgets? This is the part I’m trying to understand. Why are the numbers so much higher this year? What is the cause of that?

Mr. Andrzejewski: Over the course of last two fiscal years, when Republicans were in control of all appropriations from the House, the Senate, and the presidency, they put Ryan in the House, McConnell in the Senate, they put Obama-era spending on steroids. They spent over the last two years, an extra $300 billion in discretionary spending. That’s outside of the programs of good intentions, “entitlement programs.” It’s a target-rich environment on waste. And I think the president has good instincts on this. He has not led on spending debt or deficits, and in his two State of the Union addresses, he hasn’t even mentioned this problem. But you probably remember last fall when the president called his Cabinet together, and he scolded his agency secretaries on spending, and he ordered them to cut 5 percent of their budgets this year on waste, fraud, corruption, and abuse. We’re going to hold the president accountable to that promise.

Mr. Jekielek: Are you seeing any indication that there’s any activity happening among the agencies?

Mr. Andrzejewski: What we’re seeing is that taxpayers continue to get ripped off. And we have not seen the commitment from the president on his promise to “drain the swamp.” But we do see his commitment on many other promises: for instance, on foreign policy. I think he won the battle on cutting taxes and with his Supreme Court nominations, and so the president points to a lot of “#winning” that he has accomplished in his first two years. He can effectively say that he won the border fight, he’s gotten significant spending, he shut down the government, and he drew a line in the sand on the border to protect the national security. We make the argument that the president needs now to pivot to spending and here’s why. I think President Trump has effectively telegraphed his messaging for 2020: it’s against socialism. So, the president is going to bank the argument that through the Green New Deal, [and its] $93 trillion in spending, that the Democrats—through socialism—are going to try to drain the federal Treasury, from the left. He’ll have credibility on the issue only if Republicans are not draining the Treasury from the right.

So, he’s got to pivot on spending and to go after spending, which also is appealing to independents, good government Democrats, and holds down the Republican base. We’re encouraging the president to embrace the transparency revolution and, as commander in chief, to declare war on waste in federal agencies. And in the federal agencies, I hope we get into it: it’s a target-rich environment on wasteful spending.

Mr. Jekielek: You’ve done a really good job of actually getting some of this information that isn’t readily available, but we’re entitled to know as Americans. But sometimes it takes a while. I was reading about one of your reports on the state of Wyoming. It apparently took you five years to get at their books. How could they get away with that?

Mr. Andrzejewski: At the federal level, we capture all the spending, but also at the state and local level, we’ve captured a lot of spending. At the state level in 48 out of 50 states, we now have at least one year and most often 10 or 12 years worth of state-level expenditures. The only two states that we’re missing are California and North Carolina. As you’ve correctly alluded to, in the state of Wyoming, it was a five-year battle. We had to file a lawsuit. The previous state auditor in Wyoming, Cynthia Cloud, had for five years rejected our Freedom of Information Act request for the state checkbook—for the line-by-line transactions of where the money went. When a new auditor came in, provided six years worth of state spending; we had paid nearly $8,000 worth of fees and she refunded that money. Now, the books in Wyoming are open. This was a significant public policy victory for our team.

Mr. Jekielek: I thought this was some kind of protracted battle, but a new auditor just came in and suddenly, after five years, what had been impossible was possible?

Mr. Andrzejewski: Exactly. Here’s a quick timeline. For four years, they rejected our request—testing our will and wallet. And we hadn’t filed a lawsuit. Then, a year ago in January, we threatened to file a lawsuit. That’s when they caved. They said, “Oh, our previous excuses, forget about that. If you pay an $8,000 fee, you can have five years worth of the checkbook.” We paid the draconian fee, then they slow-walked the production. So, we sued them in July. Then, the new auditor—she just opened the books within 30 days on the job and gave us six years worth of line-by-line expenditures and refunded our $8,000. New people bring new ideas and new governance, and it’s a new day in the state of Wyoming.

Mr. Jekielek: We were talking about President Trump a little bit earlier. I understand that he actually ordered the first-ever audit of the Pentagon. First of all, I’m curious as to how it could be the first ever. No one’s ever tried to do that before?

Mr. Andrzejewski: The Pentagon has resisted this for about two decades. I think it is the law of the land, and Trump is the first President that decided to enforce the law. And that’s why we say his instincts on spending are good. As a private-sector businessman, he comes to the table knowing that you can’t waste money. And specifically, in this circumstance, you know, it’s about freedom and liberty. The American people—we pay our taxes and that takes away a bit of our freedom. We have to work longer, where we spend less time at home with our families, and we pay those taxes and we need to know that they’re effectively spent. The president gets that; he ordered the Pentagon to do an audit—1,200 auditors. The audit cost $400 million. And then, at the end of a year, the Pentagon flunked the audit.

Mr. Jekielek: What’s the next step, Adam? The Pentagon flunked the audit, a $400 million audit—then what happens?

Mr. Andrzejewski: The Pentagon was scored on 21 different audit points, different slices of the audit. They passed on five of them, they flunked on 16 of 21, and the Pentagon says now, they’re diligently working on getting passing grades in the other aspects. This is good. The president is to be complimented for making this a priority of his administration.

Mr. Jekielek: Are there any other departments that are being audited in the same way?

Mr. Andrzejewski: At OpenTheBooks.com we believe in transparency, coupled with forensic auditing. A forensic audit is an audit that follows the money; it’s evidentiary, the evidence holds up in court, and it allows public executives to be able to hone the books. We don’t think that the federal government, obviously, does enough auditing, and certainly, there should be rolling third-party audits on nearly every single line that’s spent.

Think about this in terms of the private sector. The largest corporations in the world do zero-based budgeting—where they start at the base, they have to justify every single line that goes into the budget, and then, at the end of the day, every one of those lines receives an audit. The federal government—in fact, government even in your hometown—is so far away from those concepts.

Mr. Jekielek: So, how do the budgets work, in contrast to the way these corporations work? A lot of us just simply don’t know the details of this.

Mr. Andrzejewski: It’s last year’s budget, then they layer on a certain percent, and that becomes the new year’s budget. And if you cut the percentage of growth, then they call that a budget cut, even though the budget is growing versus last year. That’s how upside down it is.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s fascinating. I had no idea about this.

Mr. Andrzejewski: Let’s say, if last year’s budget was $1,000, the next year’s budget will be $1,000 plus, say, 5 percent. So, it would be $1,050. However—it’d be $1,000 plus $500—if you cut the $500, then it’s what’s called a budget cut. Even though you might be getting $1,300, and the growth of the budget.

Mr. Jekielek: You actually did in a report—I think in 2017—something called “Mapping the Swamp,” a larger comprehensive picture look at Washington D.C. federal spending. Can you give us an overview of that and what it took to make it happen?

Mr. Andrzejewski: We came out with this report about a year ago and it made Fox News in seven full segments—about 32 total minutes of airtime—and we mapped the swamp, the swamp that the president inherited.

It’s the last year of the Obama administration—fiscal year 2016—and here’s what we found. We found it’s very expensive. It’s $1.1 million a minute, a half-billion dollars a day. And it’s getting more expensive. The amount of federal bureaucrats that make over $200,000 per year, over the course of the last six years, the headcount of those folks went up by 165 percent. There are now 30,000 federal bureaucrats that out-earn every governor of the 50 states, and that threshold salary is $190,000 a year. We just came out with new data on that. There are 91,000 federal bureaucrats that out-earn the governor in the state in which they are based.

But it’s not only about high salaries. There’s over 410,000 federal bureaucrats that make six figures. The average salary in 72 large agencies is six figures or more. The average pay is over $100,000. But, it’s not only about the salaries, but we found it’s also about the entire benefit package. For instance, after your three-year anniversary as a federal bureaucrat, you get eight-and-a-half weeks of paid time off. That’s 10 holidays, 13 sick days, and 20 vacation days: 43 days, eight-and-a-half weeks of paid time off. And, Jan, this isn’t France.

Mr. Jekielek: You’ve given us a lot of a lot of numbers. You hold these in your mind—something inspired you to get into this. Clearly, you’re a numbers guy. Where did this come from? Were you one of those child prodigies, to whom everything had to do with numbers? How did how did this happen?

Mr. Andrzejewski: My love for public policy and politics came from my father and my mother. I was the oldest of seven kids. We grew up in a small town in the middle of Illinois. On my mother’s side, we go back eight generations on the family farm, all the way back to 1844, when we dug up the prairie grass and planted the first set of crops. My love for public policy and politics came really from my father, who in our small town decided to challenge the entrenched corrupt Republican political establishment in our county of Kankakee County. Many people watching the program will know the name George Ryan. He eventually became governor of Illinois, and is one of our governors who eventually went to the federal penitentiary as well. Actually, Ryan, a Republican, was in the federal penitentiary at the same time for a period as Governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat. We had a Republican and a Democrat, both governors, in jail at the same time.

But we knew Ryan back in 1976 and 1978, and my father ran against him, as a conservative Democrat, for state representative. With the Reagan revolution, my parents became Republicans in 1980. My father ran the small “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” monkeys in his newspaper display ads, [while] Ryan ran full-page “Vote for the Good Government Team, Vote for George Ryan” display ads. My father lost that race, but it instilled in me a deep appreciation for public service. That’s what I’ve been trying to carry forward with this mission.

Mr. Jekielek: So, what about those numbers?

Mr. Andrzejewski: I’m an entrepreneur. My brother and I, from 1997 through 2007, from scratch—from our apartments—we built a company to $20 million in revenue. And here’s the story. It’s always impossible to experience your version of the American dream, yet, through sheer force of will, it’s highly probable that in this country, you can eventually pull it off—but you’re not an overnight success. It took us 10 years to be successful. In the third year, we’d have been out of business, [with] another dime’s worth of taxes, regulations, and fees. That should have been a year when we were celebrating. We hit a million dollars worth of revenue, and we nearly lost the business at that point. Through five years, we’d make a little bit, then it would go back into the company on what’s called a capital call. For six years, our employees out-earned my brother and I. We were a $5 million business at the end of six years. And by the end of 10 years, we were a $20 million business and an “overnight success.” This is why I fight so hard on transparency and accountability. Because if the politicians are going to tax us and take our labors and hard work and a bit of our freedom, they owe it to us to be able to prove to us they’ve spent our tax dollars efficiently, effectively, and honestly.

Mr. Jekielek: So, as an entrepreneur, you almost didn’t make it, even though you had an ostensibly successful business. You basically decided to take your experience and channel that into something for all Americans. That’s admirable.

Mr. Andrzejewski: Thank you very much. That’s the mission at OpenTheBooks.com. We want to empower regular people all across the country—citizens—with this data to hold those politicians accountable. It’s fundamental to the American experiment. The power rests in the people. Reagan, in his farewell address, said the reason that his administration was successful is because they returned the power to the people. The politicians before Reagan who got to the presidency—they had forgotten that the people are supposed to be the ones driving the car. Government is the car, the people are the driver, and We the People are supposed to be able to tell the government how fast to go, where to turn, and when to stop. And we’re trying to return that power to regular people.

Mr. Jekielek: In that vein, I have to ask about what you make of this surge in interest in socialism in American politics, or so it would seem, or perhaps, opposition to it, as well?

Mr. Andrzejewski: I don’t know if you’ve seen my last name—it’s Andrzejewski, it’s Polish. That experience on my father’s side, obviously, has influenced public policy and politics in my life. Being Polish, we fundamentally understand the evils of socialism and communism. We fundamentally understand that socialism, at the root, was the cause of 100 million people killed by authoritarian units of government in the 20th century.

Mr. Jekielek: At least. That’s the low estimate.

Mr. Andrzejewski: So, this is a very dangerous moment for the United States, as we flirt with these concepts of socialism that are now … it’s now common knowledge that a major party in this country, the Democrats, are running on socialism and concepts of public policy deriving from socialism.

Mr. Jekielek: We’re kind of going into a bit of a different topic here. To me, I’m seeing … I don’t know if you’d call them fault lines, or I don’t see all of the Democratic Party going down this path. I certainly see a number of people, but what do you see in terms of … I don’t think the Democratic Party, much as the Republican Party is, can be seen as just a single unit. There’s all sorts of a range of folks in there.

Mr. Andrzejewski: Let’s hope there’s a diversity of opinion. The headlines are a bit troubling. I think we know that the headlines are troubling when the Washington Post rolled out their own more conservative version of the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal would have … the estimates on that would have tapped the federal Treasury for $93 trillion. And even the Washington Post felt they had to come out with their own plan to save the Democrats on the spending. In fact, they said they came out with their own plan because the Green New Deal was riddled with waste. At OpenTheBooks.com, we are glad to see people focused on wasteful spending, and [center] the conversation across the country on the spending side rather than the revenue side of the equation. Typically, it’s always on taxes and how much revenue you’re going to raise. Our entire objective, our entire mission, is to refocus the public conversation on the expenditure side.

Mr. Jekielek: Is there anything else that you would like to share with our audience that we haven’t covered today?

Mr. Andrzejewski: Come to OpenTheBooks.com, sign our petition, and encourage the president to wage war on waste. One hundred and three thousand regular Americans [from] all 50 states have signed our petition, urging the president to declare war on waste, fraud, corruption, and abuse. Let’s help the politicians make the right decisions.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

American Thought Leaders is a new Epoch Times show available on Facebook and YouTube.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Follow Jan on Twitter: @JanJekielek
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