Rauner violates FOIA, ordered to release emails

Attorney general issues ‘binding opinion’ for governor to turn over emails on decision-making process

Gov. Rauner has violated the Freedom of Information Act by refusing to release emails on how he fills positions on state boards and commissions. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Gov. Rauner has violated the Freedom of Information Act by refusing to release emails on how he fills positions on state boards and commissions. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

The state attorney general has found the governor violated the Freedom of Information Act by refusing to turn over emails on his decision-making process on government appointments to One Illinois.

The office of Attorney General Lisa Madigan ordered Gov. Rauner in a binding opinion issued Tuesday to turn over 1,783 identified emails on appointments to various state boards and other bodies.

One Illinois first made the request in June for emails from either Rauner or his wife, Diana Rauner, on a series of issues. Told by the Governor’s Office that there were none applicable for the governor, One Illinois narrowed the scope of the request in July and focused instead on emails to or from seven current or former state employees on appointments to 13 state boards, councils, and commissions, and narrowed the scope additionally after that.

The Governor’s Office nonetheless replied that was “unduly burdensome,” and that it could not identify specific search terms to narrow the focus, even though there’s nothing in state FOIA law requiring adequate terms for a search.

“We felt we were getting the run-around and the goalposts kept moving,” Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar, founder of One Illinois, told Politico Illinois in a newsletter posted Wednesday morning.

At that point, on Aug. 10, One Illinois asked the Office of the Attorney General to review the FOIA process. The Public Access Bureau asked the Governor’s Office for an explanation, a request that at first was ignored entirely. On Aug. 29, the bureau repeated the request, and eventually the Governor’s Office revealed it had found 44,536 “potentially responsive emails,” but that narrowing the focus with the search term “appoint” had produced 1,783 emails, which it still found unduly burdensome and not of sufficient public interest to merit the work required to redact and otherwise process them.

In June, when I was first preparing that initial FOIA request, I wrote a One Illinois story asking what exactly the governor’s decision-making process was on many state issues, in that it seemed intended to divide parts of the state against others and particularly made scapegoats of Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union. I cited how Politico had sought emails from Diana Rauner on the hiring of Illinois Policy Institute personnel as state staffers midway through last year, a FOIA request the Governor’s Office likewise rebuffed.

“Every action seems coordinated around a divisive political agenda, with Diana Rauner apparently leading the way by sending an estimated 3,000 emails to state employees,” I wrote. “The question is, who did the Rauners target to suffer and why?

“In the weeks ahead, we intend to show how this was intended to wreak havoc in order to advance Rauner’s political agenda and just who the Rauners made scapegoats.”

I filed the FOIA request on behalf of One Illinois with the public interest in mind to find out how the governor — and the first lady — were making decisions on how to fill state boards, commissions, and other public bodies.

The Office of the Attorney General ultimately agreed with One Illinois that the FOIA request was legitimate and in the public interest and ruled against Rauner.

At the end of the business day Tuesday, the attorney general’s public access counselor issued a binding opinion that the governor’s denial “violated the requirements of FOIA. Accordingly, the Governor’s Office is directed to take immediate and appropriate action to comply with this binding opinion by providing Mr. Cox with copies of the requested emails, subject to appropriate redactions.”

The governor can appeal that decision, but would have to file suit against the attorney general to do so, and such cases — when a binding opinion has been issued — are almost certain losers. The governor could also return to ignoring the FOIA request entirely, in which case One Illinois would have to file suit to compel him to obey the decision, and if One Illinois prevailed the governor could be held liable for all court costs — including attorney fees — as well as fines.

But it would be better for everyone concerned — and greatly in the public interest — for the governor to release the 1,783 emails identified as pertinent to our investigation into his decision-making process.

See Zachary Sigelko’s video for One Illinois explaining where things stand.