Move over, Hillary: Rahm Emanuel sued over use of private email

Hillary Clinton is not the only person facing trouble over the use of personal email to avoid the pesky necessity of turning over communications to public scrutiny.  Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has just been sued by the Chicago Tribune over his use of private emails and texts with regard to public business.  Steve Mills of the Tribune reports:

The Chicago Tribune filed a lawsuit Thursday alleging that Mayor Rahm Emanuel violated state open records laws by refusing to release communications about city business conducted through private emails and text messages.

The lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, asks a judge to order the mayor to comply with a state Freedom of Information Act request from the Tribune and produce the documents. The lawsuit also seeks to have Emanuel declared in violation of the Illinois Local Records Act for failing to preserve emails and texts he sent or received while doing city business.

The specific issues that the Trib has been investigating are Chicago’s red light cameras and Rahm’s relationship with a hedge fund magnate:

The lawsuit against Emanuel grew out of a FOIA request in June from Tribune reporter David Kidwell. Kidwell's request sought emails, text messages and other electronic communications between Jan. 1, 2015, and June 30, 2015, related to the city'sscandal-plagued red light camera program.

Kidwell and the Tribune have reported aggressively on the program, challenging many of the city's claims about its effectiveness. That reporting led to a bribery indictment of a former city official and revealed inconsistent enforcement and lax oversight.

The Tribune's FOIA request also sought communications during the same period that included the mayor and Michael Sacks, CEO of a Chicago-based hedge fund who has donated to Emanuel's campaigns and was named to lead World Business Chicago, which Emanuel formed to try to bring business to the city. The Tribune, in its reporting, has sought to learn more about Sacks' role in advising the mayor on economic development and other public policy issues.

Rahm is apparently taking the position that there is no need to supply information from personal devices and accounts:

… the mayor's office also said that it had no records responsive to the request for emails and texts in which Emanuel conducted city business on personal devices. What's more, the mayor's office wrote in its response that it was not required under the law to produce those.

"As a result, to the extent that your request seeks records that do not reside on City email and telephone accounts, the Mayor's Office has no records responsive to that portion of your request," wrote Freedom of Information officer Chloe Rasmas in the mayor's office's response.

The Tribune concedes that the Illinois open records law may have some flaws.

Though the Tribune argues in its lawsuit that the mayor's office's refusal to turn over emails on private accounts and text messages on personal phones is "contrary to law," Ruth Schlossberg, a Crystal Lake attorney who represents municipalities on such matters, said she disagrees and that "the law is not so settled" in Illinois. (snip)

Illinois law says written communications by government officials are subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. The law covers "electronic communications," but does not spell out the rules for the use of personal email and text messages on private cellular phones, according to experts.

The office of Attorney General Lisa Madigan has issued an opinion on the matter. In 2011, in a case involving members of the Champaign City Council, Madigan's public access counselor determined that written communications about government business on personal email accounts and private cellphones are subject to FOIA. In essence, the office said it was not the device that mattered but the person using the device and the content of the communications.

The case was appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court in Springfield, which took issue with some aspects of the attorney general's opinion. But the court agreed that emails and texts on personal devices sent by council members during a public meeting were subject to FOIA.

Bureaucrats and elected officials hate these sunshine laws.  Ever since email became the most common way to communicate, the realization has grown that the public might catch on to questionable dealings.  At the most extreme, as in the case of former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, phony email accounts using a dog’s name have been created to evade legal requirements, a step also embraced by Fifth Amendment-pleading Los Lerner.

The idea that a mayor of Chicago may have some business to hide from the public is not exactly shocking news, but it is awfully inconvenient for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party that an old associate of hers like Rahm Emanuel, who rose to prominence in the Bill Clinton White House, is now ensnared in controversy over private emails used to evade public scrutiny of official business.  

Hat tip: Peter von Buol

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