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Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013 05:13 pm

As the shredder turns

While drama unfolds, city ignores signs of a lawsuit waiting to happen

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Springfield officials who are looking down the barrel of a lawsuit in the Shredgate scandal shouldn’t be surprised.

City officials acknowledge that police officers broke the law last spring when they shredded internal affairs files that were the subject of Freedom of Information Act requests from Calvin Christian III, who is demanding $365,000 in his lawsuit against the city filed after the files he sought were destroyed. The only question now is how much Christian will collect, with settlement negotiations reportedly underway.

Win or lose, FOIA lawsuits can be expensive. The University of Illinois Springfield, for example, recently paid more than $170,000 to lawyers who successfully defended a lawsuit filed by the State Journal-Register, which wanted to know details of misconduct by athletic coaches that led to their dismissal and a $200,000 settlement paid to a student athlete.

There was plenty of warning last spring that a lawsuit was in the offing as Springfield police schemed to shred.

Six days before the cops switched on the shredder, the department received an uncannily omniscient FOIA request from Springfield attorney John Myers, who has twice represented Christian in successful lawsuits against Springfield cops for refusing to disclose IA files.

Myers, who has also won a lawsuit against the Sangamon County sheriff’s office for withholding internal affairs files, asked for “any records retention or destruction policy of the city (of) Springfield relating to police internal affairs files or individual items contained therein.” He also asked for any application made to the local records commission, a state body, to dispose of internal affairs files as well as records documenting approval by the commission to destroy records.

“I must have had a hunch that this (shredding) was going to go down,” Myers now explains.

That same day, Christian requested a copy of every internal affairs file held by Springfield police. That, according to the city, amounts to more than 140 files that would reach more than 10 feet high if stacked.

Christian’s demand for every IA file seems curious for someone who has filed more than 160 FOIA requests with the city since 2010 and is, presumably, familiar with state law that says that public bodies can deny requests deemed “overly burdensome.” In prior instances, Christian had requested IA files one at a time, including a file on deputy chief Cliff Buscher, a top-ranking officer who at the time was considered a candidate to become the next police chief. The city, under deadlines established by state law, had to respond to that request by April 25, which ended up being the same day that the cops destroyed the Buscher file and scores of others.

Did Christian believe that redacting such private information as personal telephone numbers, Social Security numbers and names of informants from 40 cubic feet of files would not pose an undue burden on a public body that must, under the law, respond within five days? Or did Christian know that the department was planning to shred files and so requested every file so that he would have standing to sue over the ones that were shredded and, potentially, collect six figures at the rate of $5,000 for each file destroyed?

Christian says that he asked for every IA file out of curiosity.

“It was just a request – I wanted to know,” Christian says. “I wasn’t aware of any shredding until after the shredding took place.”

Christian says that the city keeps electronic copies of IA files, so releasing every file would not have been unduly burdensome – the city could easily make copies on a compact disc. What about redacting private information such as phone numbers and Social Security numbers? Christian says that there are computer programs that can automatically remove such information from files.

“I definitely don’t feel that it was an unduly burdensome request,” Christian says.

Mike Walton, who is in charge of the records division for the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Office, says that he knows of no program that will automatically remove private information from such files, which must be reviewed page-by-page by human beings to ensure that private information is not released. It’s a time-consuming but necessary process, he says.

“I wouldn’t want to give out someone’s Social Security number,” Walton said.

That records were set to be destroyed was no secret within the Springfield Police Department. That much is clear from a written timeline that Lt. Chris Mueller, who heads the department’s internal affairs division, prepared and turned over to Christian’s lawyers in the course of litigation.

Mueller writes that he first learned of the shredding plot two days before the deed was done when Geannette Wittendorf, a city lawyer, told him that IA files needed to be destroyed by close of business on April 25 so that she could “truthfully respond to a FOIA request.” Lt. Greg Williamson, who had been present on a 2008 trip with Buscher when the deputy chief was arrested after drunkenly firing his service weapon, just happened to stop by Mueller’s office when Wittendorf called the IA head.

“After I hung up with her, I told…Lt. Williamson about the new proposed rule and the shredding that would need to be done,” Mueller writes. “It was at that moment I realized that DC Buscher’s case would be one of them (files shredded) and that the move might be politically motivated. I unwittingly uttered this in the presence of Lt. Williamson and quickly told him he could not be involved as he was part of that particular case file.”

Mueller sounds like Hamlet as he writes about his own thoughts.

“I went home that night and stewed as I envisioned how it would play out,” the lieutenant writes in his timeline. “If the expungements were approved, I would be the one to have to shred them. An act that I believed might violate the law. And I knew it would be me who would be tasked with the shredding. The ethical dilemma wore heavy and I went to bed at 2100 hours.”

In the end, Mueller clocked more than five hours of overtime shredding IA files, working until 10 p.m. that day. At 9:43 p.m., he got a call from Lt. Wendell Banks, who had told IA investigators about Buscher’s conduct in 2008. Banks wanted to know if the Buscher file had been shredded yet.

It had been, along with about 30 others. The president of the police union lauded the shredding in an email to the rank-and-file the next day, saying that the department had acted to protect police from embarrassment.

Christian sued one week later.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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