Chicago Tribune wins fight for public records that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration sought to keep secret

The Chicago Tribune scored a legal victory on Tuesday as a Cook County judge ruled the city of Chicago improperly fought to keep secret documents for cases of alleged employee misconduct, even though the Illinois attorney general had agreed with the news organization.

Cook County Circuit Judge Clare Quish sided with the Tribune, which had filed a lawsuit in February, and ordered Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration to produce the records by no later than Oct. 4.

“We are grateful the judge has confirmed our position,” said Tribune Executive Editor Mitch Pugh. “Yet, the facts were always clear.

“This administration not only ignored the letter and spirit of the law but also opinions from the attorney general, repeatedly refusing to release records that belong to the public,” Pugh said.

“We hope this ruling inspires the Lightfoot administration to rethink its stubborn approach to public records,” Pugh said. “At minimum, Chicagoans should expect the mayor to follow the law.”

The Tribune lawsuit asked the judge to uphold requests for records made over the last two years by Tribune reporters Gregory Pratt and Jeremy Gorner through the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The lawsuit alleged one of the city’s motives for blocking a September 2020 records request from Pratt was to save city workers accused of mistreating other Chicago government employees from “embarrassment.”

The Tribune further alleged the city “thumbed its nose” at the newspaper and the attorney general’s office over records Gorner sought in May 2021 about misconduct allegations involving ranking members of the Chicago Fire Department.

Pratt’s request was for records that included discrimination or harassment charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Illinois Department of Human Rights and served on the city.

In a legal brief filed last month, the Tribune argued the Lightfoot administration had the “burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence” that the records could be kept secret, but that the city failed to “come close to meeting this standard.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot listens as others speak on Sept. 6, 2022, at City Hall. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

On Tuesday, Kristen Cabanban, a spokeswoman for Lightfoot’s legal department, said the city “is reviewing the ruling and is assessing its legal options.”

City officials will be allowed limited redactions of names and also of information that identifies people who complained about the alleged misconduct, but the Tribune will have the opportunity to challenge any redactions that appear to be improper, said attorney Melissa Pryor, who argued the Tribune’s case.

After the city’s initial refusal to comply with the public records requests, the Tribune took both of the disputes to the attorney general’s office.

The attorney general’s office, in a nonbinding opinion, said the city “improperly denied” Pratt’s request. The office said records from the EEOC and the state Human Rights Department can be disclosed because those two agencies’ privacy protections don’t apply to the city once it receives copies of the discrimination or harassment charges. The attorney general’s office said the city should turn over the records, but it allowed for redactions of names, personal contact information and details that might help identify the alleged victims.

According to the Tribune lawsuit, the city “stunningly” defied the attorney general’s opinion and claimed it needed to maintain the privacy of those who alleged mistreatment — a point the Tribune charged was “ignoring the fact that the AG office had permitted the city to redact their names and identifying details.”

Chicago officials further argued it sought to protect the alleged victims from retaliation — a position the newspaper contended was “ignoring the fact that the only entity that could conceivably retaliate against any complainants was the city itself,” the lawsuit said.

Calling the city’s reasoning “inconsistent and insupportable,” the Tribune charged “one of the city’s true motives in refusing to produce documents responsive to the September FOIA is to protect from embarrassment those city employees who have been accused of discrimination or harassment and other city employees who are tasked with investigating, responding and remedying such claims.”

Gorner’s request to Chicago’s Department of Human Resources was for “records sufficient to show any and all investigative files in their entirety pertaining to sexual misconduct and/or bullying and/or workplace harassment and/or intimidation and/or sexual harassment allegations” filed by a specific Chicago Fire Department employee.

The city, after asking for more time to respond, denied the request entirely. When the Tribune appealed the matter, the attorney general’s office said not all of the records were exempt but that the city could redact information that identified the alleged victim, witnesses and “particularly graphic, sexually explicit portions.”

But the attorney general’s office also said the city “improperly withheld factual statements, such as records of witness interviews.”

The Tribune is entitled to seek legal fees and other costs of bringing the lawsuit, a provision in law designed to urge public bodies to follow open government statutes.

“Having lost at the AG level, the city should have known better and should have turned over records months ago,” said Karen Flax, the Chicago Tribune’s vice president for legal matters.

The city’s “recalcitrance and refusal” to follow the attorney general’s opinions now means the city is “not only going to have to turn over the records” but also pay the Tribune’s attorney fees, Flax said.


Feeds,News,Chi Trib,City: Chicago

via Chicago Tribune

September 13, 2022 at 04:50PM

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