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THE WATCHDOGS: Rauner still keeping secrets

Gov. Bruce Rauner. AP photo

For the past year, Gov. Bruce Rauner has resisted efforts by news organizations to obtain copies of his daily schedule, blacking out big swaths of the documents, mounting a legal fight to keep them under wraps and — after those efforts failed — using abbreviations and code to hide the names of those the governor met with or called.

Early on in Rauner’s tenure as governor, when reporters first asked for copies of his schedule under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, his staff routinely concealed some of the events on it, redacting the names of people he met with and the listed purpose of the meetings.

On Jan. 20, 2015, for instance, the schedule released by the former venture capitalist — who campaigned in part on promises to bring an unprecedented level of transparency to state government — showed he had six meetings that were blacked out.

The following day, nine were; the day after that, five more.

Some names would be left in, including those of Rauner’s chief political foes.

For instance, in his first three months in office, the Republican governor had two face-to-face meetings on his schedules with House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton — Chicago Democrats he continues to battle over his pro-business “turnaround” agenda and to regularly vilify in his public comments.

Rauner also scheduled two meetings and a phone call with state Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Cicero Democrat who appeared with the governor last week to announce a plan to build and privatize new express lanes on the Stevenson Expressway.

Still, over Rauner’s first three and a half months in office, the details of more than 150 events were blacked out on copies of his schedule released to the public — an average of one secret meeting every day.

The governor’s staff even hid some interactions with officials such as Republican leaders in the General Assembly — people he’d be expected to maintain regular contact with.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that he’s talking to Leader [Jim] Durkin,” says Vicki Crawford, a spokeswoman for the Republican House leader. “They talk at least once a week.”

Still, Rauner’s staff blacked out Durkin’s name on his schedule.

By July, reporters were pressing harder for the release of unredacted copies of the schedules, turning to the Public Access Bureau, a division of the Illinois attorney general’s office responsible for overseeing FOIA disputes.

Attorneys for Rauner argued that the public had no right to know what was on his daily schedule, even though it involved state business and was put together by state employees.

The attorney general’s office rejected that argument, though, declaring that the schedules are public information.

Now, the governor’s office finally has produced complete copies of some of Rauner’s schedules from last year, covering January and February of 2015, as well as August through November.

They show the extent to which the governor and his staff worked to keep even routine information about his day-to-day agenda out of public view.

Most of the governor’s meetings from Jan. 20 to 22 last year were budget briefings concerning various state departments — all were initially blacked out. So were meetings Rauner held with staffers about what turned out to be pensions, collective bargaining, medical marijuana and the Chicago Public Schools.

On Feb. 6, 2015, Rauner’s schedule included a 30-minute briefing with Nirav Shah, whom the governor had appointed director of the Department of Public Health. In the schedule that was initially released, the topic of the briefing had been blacked out. The recently released, unredacted version shows what the meeting was about: “measles.”

After losing the fight to black out portions of his schedule, Rauner and his staff began concealing his activities by just leaving information off his schedule to begin with.

On Oct. 7, for example, the governor’s schedule listed four afternoon meetings — with “MH,” “EB,” “JM,” “MW,” “JC” and “AP.” There’s no identification beyond initials.

The governor’s office didn’t respond to inquiries about the people behind the initials or to repeated requests for comment for this story.

On some occasions, the initials listed for calls or meetings appear to suggest they were with top Rauner aides or Republican leaders — an Oct. 13 call, for instance, with “CR/JD,” possibly Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno and Durkin.

Two weeks later, on Oct. 27, Rauner set aside 30 minutes for a call with “EM.” Ed Murphy is his director of research.

The rest of that day’s schedule was blank — not unusual for Rauner. The governor held no public events the next day either, when his schedule showed only that he would videotape a short message and make phone calls to “JS” and “SK.”