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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Our Opinion: New FOIA law getting no respect - Springfield, IL - April 27 2011 The State Journal-Register

Our Opinion: New FOIA law getting no respect - Springfield, IL - The State Journal-Register

We’ve written a lot over the last 16 months about the strange culture of secrecy that pervades government at all levels in Illinois. We have noted repeatedly that in Illinois, the default position is to conceal information unless and until that option is exhausted.

We continue to hope that eventually the culture will change; that information will be assumed public unless it fits a narrow definition otherwise. Government continues to test our optimism.

The latest example comes from the Illinois Department of Transportation, which in February lost a lawsuit filed by 16 former employees who said they were fired in 2004 because they were Republicans. In March, lawyers for both sides negotiated a monetary settlement for the plaintiffs.

As of last week, the state had paid out $257,000 to 13 of the 16 former employees.

Naturally, we’d like to know the terms of these taxpayer-financed settlements. We believe most taxpayers also would like to know. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Don Craven, said last week that signed settlement agreements from his clients have been filed with the state.

With Illinois law very clear that settlement agreements involving governmental bodies are public records, this should be a simple matter of IDOT releasing the information, which The State Journal-Register initially requested more than a month ago.

But while Illinois law may be clear on this subject, we still are in Illinois, so this is not simple.
IDOT last week declined to release the agreements, even though the comptroller’s office confirmed that settlement money already was being paid to at least some of the plaintiffs.

“When all 16 agreements are in place, with all documents and issues related to the settlement package complete and the federal court is no longer engaged in the negotiation process with attorneys from both sides, details will be made public. Until the package is complete, details made public could negatively affect the state’s negotiating position and hinder the final resolution of the remaining issues. It is our hope and intent to resolve all issues and report to the U.S. court that all issues are resolved within a two-week time period,” an IDOT spokesman wrote in response to the newspaper’s request.

So our government can pay our tax dollars to people it wrongly fired seven years ago, but we’re not entitled to know anything about it. Even though the lawyer who negotiated the settlements says he has filed signed agreements from his clients with the state, IDOT says there is more negotiating to do.


We’ll acknowledge here that the plaintiffs’ lawyers still are negotiating with IDOT over what they should be paid for this case. Two weeks ago, they offered to settle for $1.9 million, well below the $2.5 million they believe they are owed. (This we know because, thankfully, IDOT has no control over federal court filings, which are public records.)

Even for Illinois, where secrecy remains a beloved privilege despite a strong new open records law to the contrary, this case is ridiculous in its contempt for both taxpayers and the principle of open government.

Gov. Pat Quinn embraced the new open government statute last year with great fanfare. But we’ve seen very little evidence of Quinn confronting the culture of secrecy that still pervades state government, especially in agencies — like IDOT and the Illinois State Police — that are under his control. It’s one thing to applaud a new statute on the books; it’s another matter entirely to institute a culture that respects the spirit of that statute.

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