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.

Friday, July 07, 2006

When in Rome

Or in this case, “When in Sparta.” Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich said Thursday the media like to polarize the state on issues. That was shortly after he highlighted the cultural differences between northern and southern Illinoisans, shooting basketball hoops in Chicago versus shooting quail in Sparta.

The Governor joined other state and local politicians in cutting the ribbon of a huge, $50-million World Shooting & Recreation Complex in Randolph County (the state’s share of the cost was $29 million, explaining why $29 million appears on all state press releases). The 1,600-acre complex was built on an old coalmine and boasts of trap fields, sporting clay courses, all terrain vehicle demonstration areas, archery courses and exhibition center with restaurant.

The theme of the complex was best stated by Sparta Mayor Randy Bertetto: It’s been a road long traveled. The effort started more than five years ago under Republican Gov. George Ryan’s administration and hit one GOP senator called “a bump” – a transition into a Democratic administration.

Republican Sen. Dave Luechtefeld of Okawville said the credit of ensuring the shooting complex remained a priority goes to Joel Brunsvold, retired director of the state Department of Natural Resources and 20-year member of the Illinois House. (He chaired the Illinois Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus and the Illinois Democratic Sportsmen’s Alliance – Blagojevich joked that Brunsvold wore his nickname of “Gunsvold” as if it were a badge of honor.)

“It’s a little bit political in Illinois,” Brunsvold said during the ceremony. “When you get $29 million in bonds like this, there has to be a little blood [shed], a little yelling and screaming. Everybody had to get their piece of flesh.”

Everyone seemed pleased Thursday, patting each other on the back. Rep. Dan Reitz, a Steeleville Democrat, thanked fellow Democratic Reps. Brandon Phelps of Norris City, Tom Holbrook of Belleville, John Bradley of Marion and Democratic Sen. Gary Forby of Benton for their lobbying. And, Reitz said, he “definitely” needed to thank the governor.

Blagojevich said he has supported building the complex since before he became governor. From an economic development standpoint and out of respect for the cultural and traditional sport, it was good for the state. He compared it to why the Legislature approved using taxpayer dollars to renovate Soldier Field for the Chicago Bears and the former Comiskey Park for the Chicago White Sox. “Why would it be different then when you pursue a legitimate sport down here in southern Illinois?” Blagojevich said.

Some eyebrows rose, considering his stance on gun control. The governor’s State of the State speech in February highlighted his effort to ban assault weapons after a federal ban expired in 2004. Thirteen years earlier, the governor tried to increase the fee for FOID cardholders as a way to raise money for other services. Thursday, Blagojevich said the FOID card effort was “worse than youthful discretion.”

“I’ll be damned if we raise your FOID card, I’ll tell you that,” the governor said Thursday, repeating his pledge not to raise income or sales taxes if re-elected in November. Citing his own campaign commercial, he added, “I’m a little bit older, wiser and prouder today.”

The governor acknowledged regional differences, repeating his favorite anecdote about his immigrant father settling in Chicago and working as a steelworker. He grew up “shooting hoops” rather than shooting guns. “It’s a little bit different down here,” Blagojevich said. “A guy in my neighborhood who has a gun, that's a ‘gang banger,’ and he ain’t hunting deer or quail. That guy’s up to no good.”

He said if his dad would have settled in southern Illinois and worked as a coal miner, he would have grown up shooting quail just like “you all” (many standing audience members were Polo-shirted state and local government workers).

After the ceremony, Blagojevich said he hasn’t flip-flopped on gun control issues. “I think people get it. I think people recognize there’s a big difference between respecting and supporting the rights of law-abiding citizens to be hunters, to pursue their sport, whether it be trap shooting or skeet shooting or target practice, and whether or not gang bangers who are criminals ought to have assault weapons and AK-47s.”

Also after the ceremony, Luechtefeld said, “I think people know where the governor stands on gun issues. The groups that do care, we’ll let them know how strongly he is against guns. I’m just happy he was willing to support this project, and I think he made the decision that, politically, this was good to support. And that’s what he did.”

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Headlines are good

Gov. Rod Blagojevich said Thursday afternoon that the recent headlines about investigations into state hiring practices are a good thing. “I think the headlines are great,” he said after cutting the ribbon of the new, $50-million World Shooting & Recreation complex in rural Sparta (more on this later). “I think what they suggest is that this is an administration that doesn’t tolerate wrongdoing. That it is, in fact, a different day in state government, that we have an inspector general that we created that didn’t exist before I was governor.”

In 2003, Blagojevich signed a measure creating an independent, nonpartisan inspector general for each constitutional officer, minus the lieutenant governor. The IG is intended to investigate whether employees or state contractors are violating ethics laws or involved in improper campaign financing, said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. The IG would file complaints, investigate and recommend action against the violating employee or contractor. The more severe violations would be referred to the attorney general, then to an ethics commission for review.

What the law didn’t do was allow the IGs to tell anyone what they were investigating, nor did it require their reports to be public documents. Morrison said the Campaign for Political Reform argued there ought to be detailed, public reports when the inspectors figured out something was wrong. “We got shot down,” he said. “They were concerned about employees’ privacy rights. They didn’t want false complaints or complaints that didn’t amount to anything to become a public blemish to anyone.”

So far, Morrison said he knows of more than 3,300 complaints filed by the governor’s IG. (Some context: The governor’s office employs more than 57,000 people.) Morrison said of those 3,300 complaints, about 1,000 have been investigated, 700 have been closed and only one has been referred to the attorney general’s office. “There’s a whole lot going on," Morrison said. "We’re just not ever going to see it the way it’s structured now, unless it’s leaked.”

Disclosing the reports, he said, could let the public know whether the inspector generals are doing their jobs or whether they’re dismissing some complaints for legitimate reasons. He added more disclosure could spell out what behavior is OK and what behavior is not, reaffirming what good government looks like. “We have no reason to think that what they’re doing is inherently wrong,” he said, “but we have no reason to think what they’re doing is right.”