By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Watchdog
SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Pat Quinn’s office continues to withhold emails that could shed light on whether his staff moved the location of a southern Illinois news conference to avoid protesters.
Even so, his spokeswoman says he remains committed to the issue of transparency in state government.
One document his office released Wednesday, apparently an exchange of emails, is completely censored — or “redacted.” Officials blacked out even the dates and times of the emails and the names of the senders and recipients.
“This is the most redacted email I’ve seen,” said Esther Seitz, a media law attorney in Springfield. “I’ve seen an email where at least the subject and the ‘from’ and ‘to’ lines were disclosed, but the content of this email was blocked in whole.
“Pretty much, (the governor’s office is) withholding the entire document. I don’t see why they’re giving you that email at all. There’s no point.”
Among other things it’s apparent officials redacted the location of the news conference even though the address was provided to reporters ahead of the event. They also redacted the location in a news story emailed by a staffer, saying it was personal information and therefore exempt under the state’s open-records law.
Quinn has long championed openness and transparency in state government.
“Since taking office, Gov. Quinn has improved ethics and increased government accountability and transparency in Illinois,” his spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson, said in an email Thursday night. She cited three websites he launched — data.Illinois.gov, appointments.Illinois.gov and accountability.Illinois.gov — that allow taxpayers to search a variety of information about state agencies, state commission memberships, state expenditures and payroll information.
Illinois Watchdog, formerly Illinois Statehouse News, in July sought access to communications among Quinn’s staff and others about his July 16 appearance at a Waltonville farm in southern Illinois.
Rumors abounded that the governor’s staff changed the location of the news conference to dodge state workers and families who intended to protest his plan to shutter state facilities. The governor’s spokeswoman denied the rumors.
Illinois Watchdog sought correspondence between July 12 and 17.
In a July 26 reply, Benno Weisberg, an attorney and the governor’s Freedom of Information Act officer, said 10 emails were found pertinent to the FOIA request but that they were being withheld in their entirety. He cited an exemption in state’s open-records law that allows officials to withhold “preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated.”
On Wednesday, Weisberg sent a follow-up response to Illinois Watchdog, saying five additional emails were found. Three of them contained the text of news articles about Quinn’s appearance that were emailed among his staffers. Nothing was redacted from those documents.
A fourth document is an invitation from the governor’s staff to a local public official to attend the event. The official sent a brief response, and there was apparently further correspondence, but that, too, is redacted. Also blacked out in the exchange was the address of the Laird family farm in Waltonville, where the news conference was to take place. The address of that farm, 6326 E. Elm St., was identified in the governor’s public schedule released the day before the event.
A fifth document, identified as “Bankers for Monday_Redacted,” is perhaps the most striking because it appears to be an email exchange that is almost completely redacted with black bars. Not blacked out is what appears to be an initial email that contains a news story about the event that was sent by a staffer to others. Again, the location of the Laird farm is blacked out.
Illinois Watchdog is appealing the governor’s decision to withhold any documents related to the request.
Seitz said the “preliminary drafts” exemption of Illinois’ FOIA law is overused because it is vague and there isn’t much case law to help public officials know when to cite the exemption.
“What really is preliminary or non-final, and what really concerns policy? You can construe that very broadly, and that’s why public bodies tend to overuse that exemption,” she said. “I think withholding, literally, an entire email and providing such a cursory reason why that exemption is being invoked here, you’re really left with no check on why the governor’s office used that exemption.”