A Cook County judge Monday opened the door to examining whether Gov. Bruce Rauner and top officials in his administration used personal email to conduct public business.

Acting on a lawsuit filed by the Better Government Association, Circuit Court Judge Kathleen M. Pantle ordered the governor’s office to cooperate with the watchdog group in determining whether emails discussing government business could be found on personal email accounts of Rauner and two top aides. 

The BGA lawsuit, filed in July 2015, seeks business related emails sent on selected days during Rauner’s first month in office to or from the governor, his then Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications Mike Schrimpf and Communications Director Lance Trover.

Rauner’s office has resisted releasing all or part of hundreds of emails involving the three, most of which centered on discussions about how to respond to media inquiries. The governor’s lawyers argued that an exemption in state open records law protects from disclosure communications that involve early discussions or opinions about policies before they are decided upon. 

In her ruling, Pantle said she will personally review the disputed emails to determine whether they should become public.

What’s more, her order requires the governor’s office and the BGA to “engage in discovery” on whether emails on personal accounts of the three involved discussions of public business. That decision came in response to an argument from the BGA questioning the thoroughness of a search for emails that did not include personal accounts used to transact public business. 

The move by Pantle follows an earlier decision by another Cook County Judge in another BGA lawsuit ordering the state comptroller’s office to produce emails on the personal account of its former chief of staff. A similar ruling in a BGA lawsuit involving Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also led to a December 2016 settlement in which the mayor agreed to release more than 3,200 pages of emails from his personal email accounts that included discussions of public business. 

“As multiple Cook County judges have ruled in multiple cases, it is clear that public officials cannot use so-called private email accounts to evade transparency laws,” said Matt Topic, BGA’s attorney. “We intend to get to the bottom of whether the governor and his staff are using these kinds of accounts, and will seek a court order requiring the disclosure of any of these emails that we uncover.”