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Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015 12:07 am

Suing the governor

Rauner’s secrets land him in court

Gov. Bruce Rauner
PHOTO BY TERRENCE ANTONIO JAMES /TNS
It’s a quote that can’t be repeated often enough as Gov. Bruce Rauner builds a reputation for secrecy at all costs – so long as he isn’t the one paying the bills.

“I want to make Illinois government the most efficient, transparent (state government) in America,” Rauner said last year on the campaign trail.

Now, the governor is, again, a defendant in a lawsuit, this one filed by Illinois Times, after refusing to turn over records in response to a request made under the state Freedom of Information Act.

The newspaper filed suit last week, after the attorney general’s office ruled that Rauner must turn over his appointment calendar in response to a request made last spring, after the governor walked out of a Holocaust remembrance ceremony, then ignored an emailed query asking where he had gone. The governor told the AG that the public could somehow discern his thought processes, which he apparently thinks should be kept secret, as well as his legal strategies if we knew the names of people who met with him. He also claimed that someone could discern patterns in his behavior and movements if they knew details of past meetings, which would pose a security risk.

Malarkey, the AG ruled on Sept. 22. After the ruling, the paper promptly sued, knowing well that the state’s public records law is fraught with weaknesses that make enforcement problematic.

Time and again, public bodies have ignored the attorney general when it comes to the state Freedom of Information Act, and there have been no consequences. In 2012, Chicago Public Schools ignored a FOIA request from a reporter who wanted records on student suspensions. The attorney general sent a letter to the district, reminding officials that they have a legal obligation to answer FOIA requests. The next year, the district got a similar letter from the AG after ignoring a request from a different reporter who wanted copies of emergency management plans. When the attorney general in 2012 told the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation that it had a legal duty to give the attorney general copies of a complaint file so that the attorney general could determine whether documents must be made public, the department flatly refused.

The law allows Rauner to sue if he disagrees with the attorney general’s decision, and if that were to happen, the newspaper would become a defendant. The governor’s legal expenses would be borne by taxpayers; the newspaper, as a defendant, would bear its own costs. State law requires public bodies to pay the legal expenses of successful plaintiffs, but there are no such provisions for defendants in FOIA lawsuits.

On the theory that it is better to be a plaintiff than a defendant and that a court order carries more weight than an opinion from the attorney general, the newspaper sued the governor. Should a judge agree with the attorney general and require Rauner to release his calendar, the governor, under state law, would be required to pay the newspaper’s legal expenses, and he could also be fined as much as $5,000, with the money coming from taxpayers.

All this could have been avoided had Rauner simply said, when asked, why he walked out of last spring’s ceremony. After being sued, his staff last week did exactly that, telling the State Journal-Register that Rauner had gone to a meeting with legislative leaders.

The governor’s office is also facing a lawsuit in Cook County filed by the Better Government Association, which wants copies of emails exchanged between Rauner and top aides. The governor is courting yet another lawsuit by refusing to tell the Chicago Reader the names of attorneys in private practice who have done work for the state. The governor argues that revealing the names of lawyers who have been paid with public money would somehow violate attorney-client privilege.

On the other hand, Rauner has released documents when he thinks that he can make someone look bad. Case in point are emails released by Rauner’s staff last week when Patrick Buchen, who says he was forced to resign as manager of the state fair, accused the governor’s office of cronyism and forcing him to issue free fair passes and press credentials to insiders.

After Buchen went public with his complaints, the governor’s office released an exchange of emails between him and Robert Alec Messina, an environmental policy adviser to the governor who somehow landed in a spat about who should be the grand marshal of the fair’s torchlight parade. The emails could almost certainly have been kept secret under the state’s public records law, given they are filled with opinions and talk of matters that are not yet final, both things that are exempt from disclosure under the law. At one point, Buchen writes that he might need to “go elsewhere” if the governor’s office wasn’t serious about promoting agriculture.

“You need to understand that when my nose gets bloodied I will break those who bloodied mine,” Buchen tells Messina.

And Rauner doesn’t think that he should reveal what he says in emails or let the public know how he spends his time.

Go figure.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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