Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s commitment to public transparency and accountability has been woeful.
In 2011 the Chicago Sun-Times found the state’s attorney’s office was inexplicably missing paperwork from its initial investigation into the 2004 death of David Koschman, who died after being punched by Richard “R.J.” Vanecko, a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard, the taxpayer-funded watchdog for county agencies, decided to launch an inquiry.
Alvarez’s office refused to cooperate.
Alvarez’s title includes the words “Cook County.” She’s elected countywide. The County Board has oversight of the state’s attorney’s annual budget. And county taxpayers cover much of the tab.
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But Dan Kirk, Alvarez’s chief of staff at the time, argued that Alvarez is technically a state government official, so Blanchard had no jurisdiction.
Kirk relayed to us that a public agency known as the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission already regulates all attorneys in Illinois, investigating and sanctioning them when they screw up.
That’s true, but the commission does not have jurisdiction over the hundreds of non-lawyers in the state’s attorney’s office.
Blanchard has since proposed legislation that would explicitly put Alvarez’s office under his domain.
Meanwhile, Vanecko was eventually convicted of manslaughter, but only after a special prosecutor was appointed in 2012 to investigate the initial crime and what some suspected was a cover-up.
The state’s attorney’s office has also resisted complying with the Illinois Freedom of Information Act — the state law that guarantees access to public records.
Several years ago the Kendall County state’s attorney refused to abide by a FOIA request, claiming the office was part of the judiciary and therefore exempt from the law. A lawsuit – Nelson v. Kendall County – followed, and the circuit and appellate courts sided with Kendall’s prosecutor.
Alvarez’s office not only weighed in with a “friend of the court” brief supporting the FOIA restrictions – it also stopped fulfilling FOIA requests right after the appellate court ruling. Over the next year, Alvarez’s office reported denying 261 FOIA requests “pursuant to Nelson.”
In 2014, however, the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the appellate ruling and found that state’s attorneys must comply with the FOIA.
One of those denied FOIA requests was made by Richard Fowler, then a resident of Roselle, who was looking for information on a possible investigation and actually submitted his request before the appellate ruling came down.
Fowler, 73, never got materials and thought of suing, “but I knew with the judges involved and the costs involved you’re going up against ‘city hall,’ I wouldn’t have a chance.”
Policing open meetings
More recently, the BGA sued Alvarez’s office, alleging the agency violated the FOIA by refusing to turn over records that would show its “success and failure rate” and “the extent to which” the agency is “refusing to prosecute violations of the Open Meetings Act.”
The Open Meetings Act is the state law dictating when government meetings should be open to the public and, among other things, what public officials are allowed to discuss behind closed doors, out of public view. Along with FOIA, it’s a key tool of public transparency in Illinois — a place obviously in need of all the help it can get in dealing with government. Unlike with FOIA violations, prosecutors can bring open meetings violators to court, charging them with a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and $1,500 in fines per offense.
But Alvarez has apparently never pressed the charge despite suspected widespread abuse at the local level, including school boards and municipal boards.
While her office wouldn’t say how many open meetings-related complaints were forwarded its way, Alvarez aide Paul Castiglione said from Jan. 1, 2008, to present the office “has not prosecuted any.” (However, during that time the office sent out more than 50 letters “asking that public bodies comply with” the law.)
Mokena resident Megan Fox, 39, said she approached the state’s attorney’s office at least twice in the past two years to urge the prosecution of the Orland Park Public Library board of trustees for alleged open meetings violations, including its decision to hold a public meeting on a legal holiday, Lincoln’s Birthday, “to keep the public from the meeting” and to deny people the ability to make public comments.
The Illinois attorney general determined the library board violated the law, records show. But the state’s attorney’s office ended up doing nothing, according to Fox, who is part of a group involved in a protracted battle with the library over public access. “The state’s attorney doesn’t want to prosecute a government board,” she says.
(Full disclosure: The attorney representing the Orland Park residents also represents the BGA, including in its FOIA suit against Alvarez’s office.)
Public records shredded
Possible violations of another state law also dog the state’s attorney’s office and raise questions about its commitment to transparency.
The state’s Local Records Act requires governmental agencies to obtain permission before destroying public records. In 1999 Cook County’s Local Records Commission declared that the state’s attorney’s office could destroy misdemeanor court case files 30 days after the case is closed, according to interviews and records.
But the state’s attorney’s office may have violated its own policy – and state law – by routinely shredding misdemeanor court documents the day a case ended.
“Most of the time you don’t need the records,” private attorney Jared Kosoglad said. “But when you want them, when a cop may have done something wrong . . . they’ve destroyed the evidence.”
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Kosoglad discovered this after he filed a 2009 lawsuit on behalf of a Back of the Yards family who sued the City of Chicago for false arrest. Kosoglad found court files had been destroyed before the 30-day window.
The U.S. District Court judge in that case, John Grady, called the finding “troubling.” Grady even took the rare step of sanctioning the state’s attorney’s office and one of its former prosecutors for “acting in bad faith” and obstructing access to files during the trial.
“It is troubling that the [state’s attorney] does not adhere to its own 30-day document retention policy in misdemeanor cases,” Grady wrote in a 2014 court filing.
Alvarez spokeswoman Sally Daly said Alvarez’s office has changed its practices and is no longer immediately shredding records once a case has ended.
Daly wouldn’t comment on the other transparency issues.