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Article mentions PLN's FOIA suit for IL prison contracts

Illinois Times, Aug. 6, 2015.

Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015

None of our business

Rauner rejects record requests

During the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Bruce Rauner pledged that his would be the most open administration in the nation.

“I want to make Illinois government the most efficient, transparent (state government) in America,” Rauner said in a 2013 stump speech, according to the Rockford Register Star.

Now that he’s in office, however, Rauner has shown a zest for secrecy.

Consider the governor’s appointment calendar, which Rauner has refused to make public. I got interested in the calendar after Rauner last spring gave a short speech, then walked out of a Holocaust remembrance ceremony at the Old State Capitol. He didn’t stick around to hear what a death camp survivor had to say.

What did Rauner consider more important than Holocaust victims?

I emailed a Rauner spokesperson. Why did the governor leave early? Did he have another engagement and, if so, what was it? No response. So I requested a copy of the governor’s appointment calendar. Turns out that Rauner had a meeting with someone in the governor’s office a half-hour into the hour-long ceremony. Who met with the governor is anyone’s guess, because Rauner’s staff redacted the name of the person, as well as the names of attendees of other meetings on other dates, much to the consternation of reporters who want to know who is meeting with the governor to resolve the state’s budget impasse.

After I complained to the attorney general, a lawyer in Rauner’s office wrote a five-page letter to the AG’s office saying that whom the governor meets with and when is none of the public’s business. The lawyer gave the public more credit than it deserves. Among other things, she asserted that if we knew the names of the people who have met with the governor, we could somehow discern “the substance and direction of his judgment and mental processes.” In the case of meetings attended by the governor’s legal counsel, we’d also discover Rauner’s legal strategies, the lawyer claimed.

If anyone has that sort of omniscience, they should be playing the stock market instead of wasting time trying to figure out what’s going on in Rauner’s head.

The governor’s appointment calendar isn’t the only thing that the administration has kept secret.

Last month, Prison Legal News sued the Illinois Department of Corrections after officials refused to release contracts with companies that profit from inmate phone calls, businesses that stock prison commissaries, companies that provide email and instant messaging for inmates, firms that set up video visits between inmates and those on the outside (a prison version of Skype), businesses that process money transfers to inmates and records showing how much these companies have paid the state. The state claimed that providing the contracts and payment records would be unduly burdensome.

Prison Legal News has requested the same records from all 50 states, says Paul Wright, the paper’s editor. Only Illinois has provoked a lawsuit.

“Illinois is the only one that is categorically refusing to process our FOIA request,” Wright says. “Illinois is the definite extreme: ‘We’re not going to give you anything.’ … These are government contracts. This is not a complex request to fill. There’s nothing that should require redacting. At the end of the day, this is about concealing and obfuscating what the government is doing.”

If the state loses, it could cost taxpayers, given that the state Freedom of Information Act requires government to pay fees and costs for successful litigants. The state could also be fined as much as $5,000.

Also last month, the Better Government Association sued the governor’s office for refusing to release emails sent or received by the governor and two aides in his press office on a single day in January. Rauner’s staff said the emails contain opinions and recommendations and information about actions and policies that are not final and so can be withheld. Rauner’s staff also claimed that the emails are subject to attorney-client privilege.

The governor’s office also missed statutory deadlines for responding to the BGA request. The BGA in March made a second request to the governor for a different set of emails. The organization still hasn’t gotten a final answer from the governor’s office. The law requires a response within five business days.

While the law allows government to withhold some information, it does not mandate secrecy – Rauner is free to release emails even if the law allows them to be withheld, says Matthew Topic, the attorney handling both the BGA and Prison Legal News lawsuits. In any case, the BGA says that at least some of the information in the requested emails must be released. The law says that if part of a record can be withheld and another part is subject to disclosure, then the government should release the record with appropriate redactions.

“You couldn’t even see who sent emails and who received them, things like that,” Topic said. “There should be a limited amount of redaction, not entire withholding of emails. … I’m pretty confident we’ll prevail.” 

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