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Thursday, May 17, 2018 12:18 am

The governor and the press

Journalist gets unusual FOIA request

Governor Bruce Rauner
The most intriguing part of dustups over Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Quincy Veterans Home, where 13 people have died from Legionnaire’s disease, isn’t epidemiology.

The governor’s ability to turn scandal into something worse is what fascinates and appalls. The state screwed up by failing to promptly tell residents, their kin and employees that an epidemic had broken out in the summer of 2015. By the time the state Department of Public Health issued a press release six days after the crisis was confirmed, eight people had fallen sick.

There’s no evidence that anyone has died due to the state’s failure to alert folks who were at risk, but there’s also no proof to the contrary. Assurances from Rauner are worthless, given his history of Trump-esque obfuscation.

“We’ve implemented immediately – immediately – everything that’s been recommended,” Rauner told reporters in March. “So there is nothing that has somehow taken too long or that we didn’t do or we waited on. Nothing whatsoever.”

Not quite, according to Chicago-based WBEZ radio, which last week reported that the state Department of Labor in 2016 scolded the Department of Veterans’ Affairs for not warning veterans home employees of the danger. The department sent out an email, but not everyone received it, according to the labor department. And the email was inaccurate, telling employees that cases were unconfirmed when, in fact, two residents already had been diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease.

WBEZ has been on the Legionnaires’ story like shit super-glued to a shoe, repeatedly making Rauner look stupid as the governor says that nothing’s broken when, thanks to the station’s reporting, it’s clear that his administration did dumb stuff. After the station broke the story in December, the state health department turned smartass, demanding a formal request under the state Freedom of Information Act when legislators asked for who-knew-what-when documents. The department eventually turned over paper files instead of electronic copies, with documents jumbled out of chronological order and peppered with bogus redactions. Lawmakers last week passed a bill requiring veterans homes to immediately notify the public when infectious diseases break out. By all appearances, they don’t trust Rauner.

If Rauner, months ago, had fired folks and apologized while repeating the word “accountable” a dozen times in a speech, he would’ve looked like he was in charge, and the story might have been a ding instead of a disaster. Instead, Rauner has come off as a stonewalling, pants-on-fire governor who puts political fortunes ahead of public health. The error is unforced, born from a congenital inability to practice the art of introspection and an unshakeable instinct to fight, even when odds are insurmountable and truth is on the other side.

Rauner likes scorched earth. A woman Rauner fired while he was running a private equity firm says in a 2002 lawsuit that the future governor told colleagues that he would make her “radioactive” if she sued for wrongful termination, saying that he would bankrupt her with legal bills and that she should “think twice” if she had a family. In March, state Sen. Sam McCann, ?-Plainview, said that Rauner threatened him in 2015 when the senator told the governor that he supported overriding a veto of a bill that would have taken union contract negotiations from the governor’s office and put them in the hands of an arbitrator. “(He) looked at me and said, ‘I’ll destroy you and your family if you go through with this,’” McCann told an audience in Pittsfield.

And so no one should have been surprised when the University of Illinois last month got a records request from William Bryant, who is the FOIA officer for the Illinois Department of Public Health. Bryant asked for copies of all emails exchanged between talk show host Niala Boodhoo, who is employed by the university’s public radio station in Champaign, and anyone with a WBEZ email account. The request was sent five weeks after Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the state health department, appeared on Boodhoo’s show and got some tough questions about the Quincy veterans home and other matters.

Why would an employee of a state agency ask for emails between journalists who’ve made the agency and the governor look bad? “I wasn’t looking for anything regarding Quincy,” says Bryant. Rather, Bryant says, he sent the request, during work hours but via a personal email account, on behalf of a friend. The friend’s son, he says, is disabled and had an accessibility issue on campus, Fox News had been in touch about it, and the friend’s son didn’t want his name involved, either in a news story or a FOIA request. He says he sent the FOIA in hopes of determining whether Boodhoo had discussed the accessibility issue with anyone from WBEZ.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Boodhoo says she can’t imagine why anyone would think that she’d be discussing accessibility issues with broadcasters in Chicago. At least one thing is certain: The governor doesn’t much care who or what he destroys so long as he wins. In this case, the foundation of a free press is at stake. Broadcasters should be treated as journalists, free from fear that emails might land on Front Street because they work for universities that are required to honor FOIA requests. Otherwise, they risk becoming arms of a state that already employs plenty of spin doctors.

I’m told that a bill might be forthcoming that would exempt university radio stations from FOIA. It’s a shame that such a law would be necessary, but if it comes to that, let’s call it Bruce’s Bill. If he owns nothing else, the governor, at least, can own that.

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