The massive document dump that saw Mayor Rahm Emanuel release 2,700 of his private emails after trying to conceal them wasn’t enough to satisfy the Better Government Association.
On Monday, the BGA asked Circuit Court Judge Sophia Hall to re-open the group’s settlement with the city and resolve a dispute over “more than 300” emails that may have been “improperly withheld” by the city when the marathon lawsuit was dropped.
The BGA’s legal motion also challenges, what it calls the Emanuel administration’s “selective use of redactions” to hide the content of some of the 2,700 emails that City Hall did release.
“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,” BGA President and CEO Andy Shaw was quoted as saying in a story posted to the watchdog group’s website.
“We believe the mayor’s lawyers are doing just that, so here we are, back in court, continuing our fight for transparency.”
To justify its decision to withhold more than 300 emails, the Emanuel administration produced an index that included, what the BGA called “sketchy descriptions” of the content and the city’s rationale for withholding it.
Many of the disputed emails involve discussions of Emanuel’s preoccupation with controlling the media message, according to the BGA.
Other emails include conversations between the mayor and non-city employees who advise him.
Of particular interest are emails involving Grosvenor Capital Management Chairman Michael Sacks, Emanuel’s most influential business adviser and vice chair of World Business Chicago. Sacks is an investor in the company that owns the Chicago Sun-Times.
As for the “selective redactions” from emails that City Hall did release, the BGA pointed to 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.”
According to the BGA, Mintle makes a “derogatory comment” about the “fashion sense” of Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, an Emanuel nemesis. The mayor’s response was redacted.
To justify its decision to withhold the emails, City Hall claimed exemptions to open records laws protecting opinions expressed while creating government policy, invasion of personal privacy, and information that would endanger the life or safety of law enforcement personnel.
The BGA’s motion accuses the city of overreaching and demands that the mayor’s office provide “clear and convincing evidence that the withheld records, and the redacted portions of the records that were produced, are exempt.”
Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said Emanuel is “proud of the landmark transparency agreement” he reached with the BGA in December.
He noted that the agreement “created a new policy regarding the use of personal email accounts” going forward.
“The City has complied and released all relevant emails under that agreement, which were subject to the same legal review as any FOIA request, and any exemptions were properly applied and reasonable,” McCaffrey wrote in an email.
After releasing the emails in December, Emanuel acknowledged that he “wasn’t perfect” in using private email accounts to conduct city business, but fears a new ban on similar behavior could place mayors in a bubble.
“The worst thing that can happen for a public official is that they become insular. People don’t want to communicate. . . . You don’t want to see somebody in public life be totally excluded from being exposed to people who have a different view, different ideas and want to get to them,” the mayor said.
“You now have the ability . . . to [access] certain personal emails that have to do with public business,” he said. “That is the right thing to do. . . . Know, though, [that] it doesn’t come potentially cost-free. It may actually deal with limiting people to want to talk to people in public life.”
Emanuel blamed the marathon legal battle on a “disconnect” between “technology and transparency.”
“We’re all in uncharted waters — all of us. And we worked through and got to an agreement with the Better Government Association that they themselves call a landmark policy shift,” the mayor said.
“We finally, while there was a disconnect, synced up technology and transparency and have an agreement that kind of sheds a light going forward — a set of principles that applies, not only to me, but all of the city employees and gives people the information that they need,” he said.
The massive email dump has already prompted a re-energized Chicago Board of Ethics to slap former President Barack Obama’s former campaign manager David Plouffe with a record $90,000 fine for emailing Emanuel on behalf of ride-hailing giant Uber without registering as a lobbyist.
The Board of Ethics has also issued “probable cause letters” to five more unregistered lobbyists and the companies they represent stemming from communications with the mayor made through Emanuel’s private email accounts.