Public pays for the cover-up

Public pays for the cover-up

Given the choice of obeying the law or not, too many public officials choose to try to keep public information secret.

Government bodies in Illinois have a bad habit of denying legitimate requests for information from news outlets, often hoping to delay release of the information until long after a story has become newsworthy.

The University of Illinois did exactly that a couple years ago when The News-Gazette sought expense and travel records related to a presidential search.

The request was perfectly valid. But UI officials denied it, forcing an appeal by the newspaper to the attorney general's office.

The UI eventually had to give up the documents, and The News-Gazette ran a story on what they revealed. But the UI got what it wanted — delay, delay and more delay.

That kind of gamesmanship is common in this state, where public officials only embrace the public interest when it's convenient or helpful to them.

But it's a dangerous game they're playing, one directly at odds with the public's financial interests.

The College of DuPage, caught up in a scandal that forced its president out of office and resulted in a voter cleansing of the board of trustees, recently tried the same stalling tactics with the Chicago Tribune.

The newspaper eventually got the information it was seeking — and a lot more. The college and its foundation recently was ordered to pay $225,000 in legal fees to reimburse the newspaper for the legal costs it incurred while in pursuit of a court order forcing the disclosure of the information the college wanted to keep secret.

Further, the litigation spawned by the obstinacy of the college and its foundation resulted in a ground-breaking appellate court decision that the foundation is subject to the state's Freedom of Information Act.

The foundation, one similar to the UI Foundation, argued that the state's freedom-of-information law does not apply to it because it is a charitable foundation that plays no public role.

The appellate court dismissed that legal balderdash by noting that the college foundation controls the college's fundraising operation and was staffed by employees whose salaries and employee benefits are paid for by the taxpayers.

The information the newspaper was seeking involved a federal subpoena issued to the college and its foundation. The subpoena was issued in the aftermath of an investigation into how the college spent public funds conducted by a taxpayer watchdog group, OpentheBooks.com, that was followed up by The Tribune.

The Tribune filed suit in April 2015 in pursuit of a number of documents, including the subpoena. The Trib reported that the college later turned over most of what it sought, but that the foundation refused to hand over a copy of the subpoena on grounds that it was under no legal duty to comply.

Reacting to the court's order that the college and its foundation pay the newspaper's legal fees, Tribune Editor and Publisher R. Bruce Dold said the pair's intransigence in complying with the FOIA request was "more of the same" abuse of public money.

He noted that multiple investigations revealed the college squandered tax dollars on all sorts of programs that benefitted influential people there, including top administrators. Then in an effort to cover up that mishandling of public funds, the college and its foundation unlawfully refused to comply with the FOIA law that revealed the misspending and, in the process, wasted another $500,000 in taxpayer money in the form of legal fees necessary to pay for pointless litigation.

It's good news that the College of DuPage and its foundation have been held accountable, but bad news for taxpayers forced to foot the legal bill for the school's misbehavior.

It's even worse news that the effort by college and its foundation to avoid compliance with the FOIA law comes right out of the public official's handbook on how to avoid public disclosure of business that the public funds.

It would be naive to hope that most of our elected officials will adopt a more accommodating approach. This is Illinois, after all. Perhaps the fear of bad publicity after being hit with financial penalties for refusing to comply with the law will have a more salutary effect on these FOIA outlaws.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion

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sanjuan wrote on November 22, 2017 at 8:11 am

It's very telling that even minor bits of public information are held close.  As I recall, "Ask Tom" had to use an FOIA request to force Unit 4 to divulge the relatively benign details of a short term lease between the schools and a church for the former Christian Scientist property.  Why was that not released without fuss?  You rent from a public body, the lease terms are public.  Period.

 

rsp wrote on November 22, 2017 at 12:11 pm

Sometimes that's just so there's a record of who the information was given to. It may take a few days to gather the information and a paper trail of when it was asked for and delivered can be a good thing for both parties. Just think about how many requests they get and they have to check every document for imformation that shouldn't be released.

sanjuan wrote on November 22, 2017 at 2:11 pm

There must be an easier way to make innocuous public documents available than to make people jump through the hoops of a formal FOIA request.  How about public bodies start by posting all contracts on their web site? 

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