Wednesday, July 26, 2006

FOIA facts

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office is looking into whether the governor’s office is responding appropriately to requests under the Freedom of Information Act, according to Cara Smith, the attorney general’s policy director and interim spokeswoman.

Early July headlines let it be known numerous state agencies received federal subpoenas for an investigation into hiring and contracting practices of Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration.

If anyone asks to see those subpoenas under FOIA, the state law does protect some records related to law enforcement if – emphasize “if” – disclosure would interfere with litigation or an ongoing criminal investigation. (See more “ifs” that qualify for exemptions on this FOIA fact sheet.)

Smith said 100 percent of the burden is on the public body, in this case the governor’s office, to spell out the legal basis for denying a request. They’d have to cite a specific provision within the act that protects the requested info from being released.

But the law also allows for part of the request to be granted. If releasing certain details could interfere with the investigation, the administration could still grant a copy with those items blacked out (or redacted, in legalese).

Again, the governor’s office would have to show that disclosing the blocked out portion would interfere with an ongoing investigation, said Don Craven, a Springfield attorney who concentrates on media law (and who represents 18 former Department of Transportation employees who filed suit in Sangamon County against the administration).

“I’m not willing to concede that the entire subpoena is not subject to disclosure under FOIA,” Craven said. “Knowing there are 17 subpoenas to the governor’s office is not going to interfere with anything.” (He said he pulled the No. 17 out of thin air as an example.)

“Even if they black out the details of what [the requestor is] asking for, they can produce the top half of the subpoena,” he said. Another such detail could be the date the subpoena was issued.

“If the governor is doing all that he can do, show us,” Craven said.

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