An open letter to the attorney general
I was there when you were sworn in. I saw you applaud when Comptroller Susana Mendoza called Secretary of State Jesse White the greatest politician in Illinois history.
White told me to go away in the spring of 2017 when I asked for the personnel file of Candace Wanzo, a bureaucrat in the auto licensing division who was put on administrative leave for reasons still mysterious. She never should have been hired. She stole more than $233,000 from Southern Illinois University in 1991, eight years before White put her on the payroll. Then she used a state car to commute to Springfield from her home near St. Louis – the auditor general caught that in 2004.
Wanzo’s personnel file, maybe, would answer obvious questions: Did anyone check her criminal history before she was hired, has she been held accountable and why was she put on administrative leave? When White told me to screw myself, I asked your predecessor, Lisa Madigan, for help – the attorney general is supposed to enforce the Freedom of Information Act. That was on June 2, 2017. I never heard back. With a new sheriff in town, I emailed your office on Jan. 24, and I followed up with a phone call: When can I expect an answer? I haven’t heard back.
That’s why Illinois Times sued White this week. What choice did we have?
While you were ignoring me, I was in Sangamon County Circuit Court, where Illinois Times two weeks ago won a lawsuit concerning personnel files. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum had claimed that disciplinary records involving former curator James Cornelius, who was fired last year, are top secret. It wasn’t a head-scratcher for the judge, who took all of two days after hearing oral arguments to rule in favor of openness. Lawyers who work for you, whom we all pay for, defended ALPLM. The ruling wasn’t surprising. Illinois courts at least seven times have ruled that disciplinary records or personnel files are public records. We keep litigating the same stuff over and over again, with the same result.
With White, it would’ve been nice to have known on which side you fall. You could’ve said that White should produce the records. On the other hand, you might have said that White’s right. Instead, not a peep, not from you, not from your predecessor – a coincidence, of course, that you two, plus White, are Democrats. It’s too late for the transparency angel on one shoulder to say anything, given that your office, with lawyers funded by taxpayers, now must defend White in court.
I don’t know who’ll win this legal fight – in Illinois, it’s hard to predict. But I think I know a sincere man from a politician who says stuff because it sounds good. “Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” you declared when you were sworn in.
By my count, there have been more than 80 amendments to FOIA since the legislature overhauled the law in 2010, purportedly in the name of transparency, and it’s harder now than it was nine years ago to get records. Before your current gig, you were a state senator. I don’t remember you spending political capital to argue against exempting performance evaluations from FOIA. You also voted in favor of a bill that restricted information requests from folks who aren’t journalists. Then, on the campaign trail, you vowed to spend more money on assistant attorneys general to enforce a law with no teeth.
We keep litigating the same things, and obvious things, because there are no consequences. From the governor’s office to Illinois State Police to the University of Illinois to ALPLM to Chicago Public Schools to East St. Louis, public bodies flout the law because there’s no reason to do otherwise. If someone sues, your office, often as not, provides them with lawyers. Sure, the government pays plaintiffs’ legal bills when the government loses, but that’s not much in the scheme of things. The maximum fine for breaking the law is $10,000. No judge ever has levied it. And you think the solution is spending more on lawyers? I think the solution is a better law.
This isn’t complicated. You’re just getting started. Make this your life’s work.
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.