SPRINGFIELD — Despite having a new criminal subpoena in hand, Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration dragged its feet in releasing the politically-sensitive public document — a delay one expert called a gaming of the state open-records laws that “stinks.”
On Tuesday, the governor’s office finally released the federal grand jury subpoena dated Aug. 27 that sought records related to Quinn’s failed Neighborhood Recovery Initiative anti-violence program, but it did so only selectively.
After the end of business on Sept. 3, the Chicago Sun-Times submitted an Illinois Freedom of Information Act request seeking “any state or federal subpoenas” received by the governor’s office dating back to Aug. 1, a time period that covered the latest query from the U.S. attorney’s office.
Last Thursday, Quinn associate general counsel Nellie V. Ridsdale responded with a request for five additional business days to comply with the request.
In her letter to the Sun-Times, Ridsdale cited two exemptions allowed under state law to justify the delay for a response until Thursday. She indicated a “routine search” within the governor’s office failed to turn up the document and that without the benefit of extra time, looking for it any further would “unduly” burden the governor’s staff.
Quinn’s administration released a copy of the two-page grand jury subpoena Tuesday to the Chicago Tribune. When a Sun-Times reporter called to complain about the selective release, the administration finally provided a copy to the Sun-Times, even though the newspaper’s subpoena request had been in the administration’s open-records pipeline for nearly two weeks.
One of the state’s preeminent experts on the Illinois Freedom of Information Act said those justifications by the administration don’t hold muster, particularly given the gravity of a federal subpoena.
“We’re talking about two pieces of paper. It’s not a complicated subject. They know the rules about release of federal subpoenas, and they’re playing games with you,” Springfield attorney Donald Craven said.
“Then, they further play games when they pick and choose who they release records to. For Mr. Openness and Transparency,” Craven said in a barb at the governor himself, “it stinks.”
Craven won a 2008 case against then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who fought to keep criminal subpoenas received by his administration private. A state appeals court ruled that subpoenas are public documents available through the state Freedom of Information Act.
The Aug. 27 subpoena seeking NRI-related records from the Criminal Justice Information Authority came from a federal grand jury impaneled in Chicago in February.
The request marks the first time the U.S. attorney’s office in the Northern District has gotten involved in the case. Two earlier subpoenas from the U.S. attorney’s office in Springfield preceded this one, as did a subpoena from Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.
U.S. Attorney James Lewis, who presides over the Central District, asked a legislative panel investigating NRI to delay hearing until mid-October testimony from seven ex-Quinn administration employees who rolled out and implemented the $44.5 million grant program.
Quinn’s office issued a lengthy response Tuesday outlining its handling of the subpoena request.
“After a FOIA request is received, state attorneys conduct a search to find any and all responsive documents. Due to the high volume of FOIA requests received and our commitment to providing all responsive records to meet each request, this process requires time,” Quinn spokesman Grant Klinzman said.
“Requests are processed in the order they are received, and the FOIA law allows agencies to utilize an additional five business days to respond to requests, which is often needed due to the overall volume of FOIA requests. This allows us to be sure that we are responding fully and treating requestors fairly in accordance with the law,” he said.
“We always work to provide documents as quickly as possible to all media outlets requesting them. These requests were responded to in the order they were received,” he said. “We will continue to do our best to treat media outlets fairly and equally and be as responsive as possible.”