Gov. Bruce Rauneron Monday took a stern position against any members of his administration using personal email to conduct government business.
“We have a very firm policy. We say: no personal email if you’re serving in the administration,” Rauner said. “Don’t use personal email for any government business whatsoever.”
Yet Rauner’s hand-picked, $250,000-a-year education secretary Beth Purvis has used private email to communicate with outside consultants about education policy in Illinois — and the governor’s administration for months refused to make the exchanges public.
In fact, the governor’s office initially denied a May Freedom of Information request by the Chicago Sun-Times. When the paper appealed, Rauner’s office then advocated extensively in a seven-page argument to the Illinois Attorney General’s office against the release of such emails. Attorneys further argued that employees’ private emails are not subject to freedom of information laws.
The approach was in stark contrast to a recent scandal at the University of Illinois, where Chancellor Phyllis Wise resigned following the use of private emails. The institution then made 1,100 emails public.
LateMonday, after Rauner made the public comments about the ban on using personal email for any government business, and the Sun-Times asked about the contradiction, his office released 44 pages of documents from Purvis’ private email account. They consisted of some half a dozen emails, some of which were not fully readable, between Beth Purvis and outside consultants, including a onetime Bain & Company associate and another Civic Consulting Alliance employee.
The disclosure from Purvis’ private email also included a lengthy document detailing education strategy in Illinois, key goals with regard to everything from early childhood to teacher merit pay to college affordability in the state. It also included anticipated funding pressures and legislative hurdles. Each page is marked “confidential.”
A copy of an email provided to the Sun-Times shows Purvis has a separate folder in her email entitled “IL Ed Policy.”
Asked what happened if his email policy was violated, Rauner respondedon Monday: “Have to look at the case by case,” he said at a news conference at the Thompson Center. “It’s good management practice not to have personal email used on anything that touches on government business.”
But in May, Rauner’s office declined requests from the Chicago Sun-Times that Purvis make public emails between herself and the Civic Consulting Alliance from Purvis’ personal account and her government email. The office said it had no jurisdiction over Purvis’ personal account and argued that what Purvis voluntarily turned over to the governor’s office was exempt from public disclosure.
The Sun-Times appealed to the Illinois Attorney General’s public access division.
“The issue of whether emails sent to and from a personal mail account are‘public records’ is one of the most unsettled areas of federal and state FOIA law. To date, no court has articulated a bright line rule resolving this issue,” the governor’s office stated in response to the Attorney General’s office. “Despite the lack of a definitive answer, case law and statutory interpretation of Illinois’ FOIA make it plain that personal emails are not public records.”
Transparency advocates have railed against the use of private email by public officials to discuss or conduct public business, saying it only muddies up attempts by the public to get at the information. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the personal email issue a global one, leading a federal judge to order that her personal emails pertaining to public business be turned over.
The Sun-Times’ request to Rauner specifically asked for emails between Purvis and Bain Consulting and Civic Consulting Alliance — entities that aided Rauner’s education team as it transitioned from post-election to the governor’s mansion.
The Sun-Times FOIA request focused on incoming and outgoing emails pertaining to public education plans and/or policy and/or state public matters related to education in Illinois” and the select outside consultants.
In its response to the Illinois attorney general, the governor’s office acknowledged it found emails the Sun-Times sought but argued: “although these documents were responsive, they were exempt from production.” It cited an often-used exemption in Illinois law pertaining to “preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed.”
The governor allowed Purvis to sort through her emails voluntarily.
“In regards to the emails to and from Beth Purvis’ personal email account, the Governor’s Office contacted Ms. Purvis, explained to her what the FOIA requests sought, and directed her to send any potentially responsive emails to the Governor’s Office,” the governor’s attorneys wrote in a response to the Illinois Attorney General.“The office had no other means of obtaining these emails; it relied on Ms. Purvis to search her emails in good faith and produce them for review. In this manner, the Governor’s Office went beyond what was required of it by the statute.”
At least one expert said Rauner needs to do more.
“The governor has pledged to be transparent, I remember that from the campaign. He needs to do things to restore public confidence. The workings of government in this state is at a low,” said David Yepsen, who heads the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale.
“Given the environment that we’re in, U of I, Hillary Clinton, the governor’s people have to be concerned with how this looks in addition to what the letter of the law is. You’ve got the court of law and you’ve got the court of public opinion. The governor has to decide how he wants this to look.”
After Rauner’s election, he tapped Purvis, then a charter school executive, to spearhead his transition team on education, laying out potential goals for the incoming administration.
In December meetings on plans for education, Purvis relied on the assistance of private consultants from Bain & Co. and the Civic Consulting Alliance, according to documents obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
The discussions were to remain strictly confidential and any inquiries about the meetings were to be directed to the governor’s press office. That team helped formulate education goals, which have largely remained private under the new governor.
In June, Purvis testified before a House panel about her salary, which is being paid out of the cash-strapped Department of Human Services. At the time, she said she was looking at “cradle to career” matters pertaining to education. But she said she was not required to hit benchmarks, produce public reports to the state or reportto the Illinois General Assembly to measure progress. Purvis said she reported only to the governor and one person reported to her.