URBANA — A Champaign County judge Wednesday ordered the city of Urbana to release police reports sought by a watchdog group under the Freedom of Information Act while scolding two government lawyers for withholding information from him.
Judge Jason Bohm said attorneys for the Illinois State Police and Illinois State Appellate Prosecutor’s office “certainly appear to have violated the spirit” of the code of professional conduct for lawyers by failing to give him information about the timing of an investigation, a key element in the city’s denial of the request for the reports.
The ruling came in a case filed March 6 by the Edgar County Watchdogs, who wanted to see Urbana police reports regarding a January incident involving state Rep. Carol Ammons at a resale shop in Urbana.
That case came to an apparent end three weeks ago — 10 months after the Jan. 7 incident — when Appellate Prosecutor Patrick Delfino said he would not charge Ammons with a crime for walking out of the Carle Auxiliary Resale Boutique, 810 W. University Ave., U, with an $80 Coach bag for which she had not paid.
Ammons called the incident a “simple mistake.”
In the wake of Delfino’s announcement, Urbana quickly released its written police reports, which had been sought by others as well but who were denied on the basis of a “pending investigation.”
Given Ammons’ status as a former Urbana City Council member and chairwoman of the Champaign County Democratic party, the investigation took a circuitous route.
Three days after receiving the theft report, Urbana police asked Illinois State Police to investigate. Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz followed suit and asked Delfino’s office to review the report for possible charges since she represents Ammons’ husband, Aaron Ammons, in his role as Champaign County clerk.
In response to the Edgar County Watchdogs’ request for reports, the city cited three exemptions under the law, all of which Bohm ultimately ruled did not apply.
The exemption regarding private information, he said, was easily cured by blacking that out before releasing the reports.
After reviewing the reports and security footage of the resale shop, Bohm also rejected the city’s claim that their release would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
It was the third exemption the city cited about the interference “with pending … or contemplated law-enforcement proceedings” that Bohm dwelled on in his ruling.
“It is not enough for there to simply be an investigation; rather, there must be an explanation of how the disclosure would interfere with the investigation,” he said, summarizing existing case law as he delivered his ruling in open court.
In August, Urbana submitted to Bohm affidavits, dated in August, that said as of February, the investigation was pending and release of the information would interfere with the investigation.
In mid-October, Bohm again ordered the city to submit affidavits saying “how” the release of the reports would interfere with the investigation.
What he learned from the affidavit of an state trooper involved is that the detectives had concluded their investigation March 10 and submitted their reports to the appellate prosecutor the next day.
“This information, however, was never included in the materials submitted to the court. In fact, this information is conspicuously absent from another ISP affidavit,” Bohm said, calling out state police attorney Bruce Kugler for failing to say that its investigation had been finished for five months.
“When people swear to things, they promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Whole truth means you don’t leave material information out. As a result, the August affidavit of Mr. Kugler seems less than forthright,” Bohm said.
He also called the response from appellate prosecutor Matthew Jones “troubling” in that Jones supplied a letter to Urbana officials saying the office policy is not to provide the sort of affidavit requested by Bohm.
“Both Mr. Jones and Mr. Kugler are … officers of the Court. As such, they owe a duty of candor” to the court under the code of professional conduct, he said.
“While their affidavits may not have technically violated the rule, they certainly appear to have violated the spirit of the rule,” said Bohm, a former federal prosecutor.
Bohm said if the appellate prosecutor believed the release of the Urbana police reports would have interfered with the decision on whether to prosecute Ammons, “what they needed to do was to say so and say how the disclosure of information would have interfered with that process. But they did not do this.”
Bohm gave the city until Friday to release the information requested by the group, although Police chief Bryant Seraphin said the reports had already been given to several who requested them, including The News-Gazette, on Nov. 20, the day after Delfino’s announcement that Ammons would not be charged.
Seraphin did not know if the Watchdogs got the reports then.
The Illinois State Police released their reports to The News-Gazette on Tuesday.
Urbana City Attorney James Simon declined to comment on Bohm’s ruling or answer questions, saying the litigation remains pending.
Simon told the judge the city reserved its right to appeal. Mayor Diane Marlin said Thursday no decision on whether to appeal had been made.
Merrick Wayne, one of the Chicago attorneys for the Watchdogs, said he and the plaintiffs were “thrilled” by Bohm’s ruling.
“Under FOIA, all people have a right of access to public records to enable them to make informed political judgments. This police report is a public record, and it is a big win for transparency to have a court order its release,” he said.
Wayne said the Watchdogs intend to seek their attorneys’ fees from the city but wouldn’t comment on the amount.
The judge told Simon and Wayne to get back to him if they cannot resolve the issue of attorney fees themselves.