The Better Government Association has asked a judge to reopen its recently settled email lawsuit against Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a dispute over more than 300 communications that the watchdog group argues may have been improperly withheld by the city when it released the mayor’s personal emails related to public business.
The motion, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, also challenges the city’s selective use of redactions to hide some content in emails it did release.
As part of an agreement with the BGA, the city in December released more than 3,000 pages of emails that showed Emanuel routinely using his personal accounts to conduct city business. The mayor and city did not admit wrongdoing, but the lawsuit had alleged that Emanuel turned to personal email to evade open records law transparency requirements.
In its new legal challenge, the BGA is asking Cook County Judge Sophia Hall to scrutinize the validity of the city’s claim that exemptions in open records law allowed it to withhold or redact many of the mayor’s business related personal emails.
“We made it crystal clear, when we agreed to settle the case in December, that we would be back in court if we felt city lawyers were in violation of open records laws by improperly withholding some emails and redacting the content of others,” said BGA President and CEO Andy Shaw. “We believe the mayor’s lawyers are doing just that, so here we are, back in court, continuing our fight for transparency.”
Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for Emanuel’s law department, said the city was “proud of the landmark transparency agreement” reached previously with the BGA. “The city has complied and released all relevant emails under that agreement, which were subject to the same legal review as any FOIA (open records) request, and any exemptions were properly applied and reasonable,” McCaffrey said.
As part of the December settlement, the BGA reserved the right to challenge any exemption claims the city asserted if it declined to make public Emanuel emails in whole or in part. While declining to release more than 300 of those emails, the city did produce an index providing sketchy descriptions of what they contained and the rationale for withholding their content.
According to the city’s own descriptions, many of those withheld emails involve discussions of so-called “talking points” and “press strategy,” in essence how to manage the administration’s messaging on a variety of subjects. Others involve conversations between Emanuel and people not on the city payroll, in particular Michael Sacks, the wealthy CEO of global investment firm Grosvenor Capital Management, who has emerged as both a sounding board and key political fundraiser for the mayor.
And still others, the BGA asserted in its motion, are described by the city index in such vague terms that it is difficult to assess whether the decision to withhold them could meet any legal test. Examples include emails described only as “discussion of strategy for day ahead.”
The BGA challenge also asks Hall to weigh the validity of the city’s decision to obscure portions of some Emanuel emails it did release. In several of those, the comments of aides to the mayor were made public but his own responses were blacked out and rendered unreadable.
For example, a July 7, 2011 exchange between the mayor and his then chief of staff Theresa Mintle under the subject line “Passing RE note on Karen Lewis. We can talk tomorrow ” includes a derogatory comment from Mintle about the fashion sense of the Chicago Teacher’s Union president. Emanuel’s response to Mintle has been blacked out by the city.
The contents of another email sent to Emanuel on January 9, 2015 by then Police Supt. Garry McCarthy has been almost totally redacted by the city. The subject line is “Fw: Phone Robbery Update” and includes a message circulated among top McCarthy deputies that begins “All—below is an update on the iphone robbery case.”
The content of the update itself, however, has been blacked out by the city so it is impossible to determine what case is being discussed. However, the message was sent around the same time Chicago police were investigating the mugging of the mayor’s teenaged son Zach, who was accosted outside Emanuel’s Ravenswood neighborhood home and robbed of his IPhone. Another teen was later arrested and pleaded guilty in the case.
The city’s index of withheld emails cites a variety of exemptions to open records law as reasons for not releasing the communications. Among them are exemptions protecting opinions expressed while creating government policy, invasion of personal privacy, and information that would endanger the life or safety of law enforcement personnel.
In its motion, the BGA questions whether the city has overreached in applying such exemptions to block release of some or all of the withheld emails. “The Mayor’s Office must provide clear and convincing evidence that the withheld records, and the redacted portions of the records that were produced, are exempt,” the BGA motion asserts.