In its tourism promotions, the state of Illinois highlights a 160-year-old fixture on the grounds of its largest state-run veterans’ home: A two-acre “deer park” that’s home to “a deer herd, peafowl, exotic cattle, goats and swans.”
When a fatal Legionnaires’ disease outbreak first struck the Illinois Veterans Home in downstate Quincy back in 2015, the state agency that runs the facility prepared for possible media questions about whether the fenced-in park was “dangerous” for children, according to emails examined by WBEZ.
In short, the answer was no.
But now, it’s a detail that Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration has inexplicably tried to keep secret. The governor’s office has shielded the seemingly innocuous email from state lawmakers who have been clamoring for internal documents surrounding the ongoing public health crisis.
A WBEZ analysis of nearly 450 pages of emails found that government lawyers blacked out portions of more than half the documents recently turned over to a legislative panel investigating the state’s inability to contain the waterborne illness. Repeated outbreaks at the home since 2015 have contributed to the deaths of 13 residents and sickened dozens more.
The way the government lawyers wielded their figurative black markers to redact hundreds of Legionnaires’-related emails has some lawmakers fuming and government transparency advocates crying foul.
WBEZ had previously obtained some Legionnaires’-related emails from the public health department in Adams County, where the Quincy home is located. The Rauner administration later handed over some of those same emails to the legislative committee investigating the outbreaks — with significantly more redactions.
By cross-checking the two groups of documents, it’s possible to see some of what Rauner’s office didn’t want lawmakers to see.
In some cases, lawmakers received documents so heavily redacted that they were virtually useless. Furthermore, lawmakers simply did not receive some emails written by administration officials that WBEZ knows to exist.
The analysis offers a rare side-by-side look into the subjective — and often inconsistent — way the administration has shielded documents from public scrutiny, which one transparency advocate said “upends” the spirit of Illinois’ public records law.
“Government appears, in this instance at least, to be more invested in black ink than anything else,” said Terry Mutchler, who was in charge of helping enforce the state’s public records law under Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
The recurring Legionnaires’ outbreaks have dogged Rauner and hindered his re-election efforts since WBEZ published an investigation last December into allegations of neglect in the deaths of veterans and, in one case, a spouse who died from Legionnaires’ in 2015. Eleven families are now suing the state.
WBEZ also first reported that state officials chose to wait six days after knowing they had a Legionnaires’ “epidemic” at the home before informing the public about the spread of the disease — a delay one infectious disease expert called “mind boggling.”
In some cases, family members reported their loved ones fell ill during that six-day period and were left to make vital health care decisions without knowing about Legionnaires’ test results or the rapid spread of the disease, which typically can be controlled by antibiotics.
The documents lawmakers aren’t seeing
Earlier this year, the joint House-Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that’s investigating the repeated outbreaks at the Quincy home demanded that the Rauner administration turn over all documents relating to the public health crisis.
The governor’s office first criticized the sweeping request as “overbroad and vague.” Then, on Feb. 20, Rauner’s administration told the committee their ask was “enormous” and would require “many hundreds of hours to review” in order to redact “private medical information and social security numbers.” Instead, administration officials said they’d only provide documents they’d already handed out in response to other public records requests.
The state Freedom of Information Act, which determines access to government records, lays out more than 50 exemptions that enable government lawyers to prevent documents from being made public.
Rauner’s office seems to have used the law to make some documents unreadable to lawmakers.
On Sept. 3, 2015, then-state Veterans Affairs Department spokesman Ryan Yantis emailed state Public Health Director Nirav Shah, state Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Jeffries, and several other state officials, including some in Rauner’s office. Yantis was outlining “talking points” to use during media interviews as the 2015 Legionnaires’ crisis fully blossomed.
The email, provided to WBEZ by Adams County, included prepared responses to potential questions on why it took the veterans’ home “so long” to “take action” on the 2015 outbreak and whether it was safe for parents to bring their children to the fenced-in deer park at the facility. The email shows Rauner administration officials were also preparing for questions about how residents at the home would maintain hygiene while showers were temporarily shut off and whether the Illinois budget impasse at the time would affect the state’s handling of the crisis.
A follow-up email Yantis sent the next day also addressed whether the municipal water supply in Quincy might be tainted by Legionella, a concern that later was never borne out. An attachment to that particular Yantis’ email, which was blacked out to lawmakers, also included a question about whether staff at the home was at risk of contracting Legionnaires’. Six employees wound up getting sick in 2015.
The contents of those two emails are were left intact by Adams County officials. But lawmakers didn’t get to see them because the identical emails provided to them by the governor’s office are awash in black ink.
A comparison between the Adams County documents and the version Rauner’s administration gave lawmakers also shows some emails excluded entirely, even though they’d seem to fall within the scope of the legislative committee’s request.
Notably missing was an Aug. 29, 2015, chain that began with a correspondence from the grief-stricken son of Legionnaires’ victim Eugene Miller. The son, Tim Miller, condemned the state for withholding information about Legionnaires’ at the home as his father lay dying. His note appears to have gone all the way up the chain of command to Shah, the state public health director.
Lawmakers also weren’t privy to an email chain that appears to show high-level members of Rauner’s administration discussing whether they were legally compelled to notify legislators about developments in the 2015 outbreak.
The state Public Health Department gave that Aug. 30, 2015, email to WBEZ. By that time, Legionnaires’ disease had swept the facility, with six residents already dead and nearly three dozen sickened.
Rauner’s top government lobbyist, Richard Goldberg, asked Shah whether any legislative notification was required. Shah said he didn’t think so, but would consult with his agency’s lawyer, the document shows.
The exchange left unanswered contextual questions because the state public health department chose to black out part of Shah’s response in the document provided to WBEZ.
But in the document agency lawyers sent to lawmakers investigating the outbreaks, the reference to legislative notification was stricken entirely, rendering Shah and Goldberg’s discussion almost meaningless.
‘We’re operating within the law’
A Rauner aide said the administration’s lawyers were not attempting to keep the legislative committee in the dark based on what details were blacked out – and that they were acting within the scope of the law.
Draft documents can be excluded from public inspection under the state open-records statute, and Rauner spokeswoman Patty Schuh said the emails in question fall under that category.
“I think the specific examples you’ve provided demonstrate clearly our effort to apply the exemptions appropriately and consistently. We’re not trying to shield information that might make us look bad or make sure we pump out information that might make us look good,” she said. “We’re operating within the law.”
But now, and in earlier hearings, the Rauner administration’s efforts to withhold or scrub Legionnaires’ emails has triggered anger among top Democrats running the investigation.
“The question begins to enter one’s mind: What are they redacting [and] why are they redacting it?” said state Rep. Jerry Costello, a Democrat from downstate Smithton.
“If there is not, in fact, any type of a cover-up, why is this information being pulled from documents being released to the General Assembly and the committee that’s investigating this whole process?” Costello said. “It surely does not foster a great deal of trust.”
A ranking Republican on the Senate-House committee, state Sen. Paul Schimpf, of downstate Waterloo, described the Rauner administration’s approach to blacking out documents as an “expansive interpretation” of state open-record laws.
“I am disappointed the administration was unable to make more information available for two reasons,” Schimpf told WBEZ. “First, the unredacted information that you have given to me shows an administration that was taking positive, proactive steps to deal with a challenging situation. Second, some of the redacted information is of critical importance right now as the General Assembly decides what to do with the facility, specifically the question of whether legionella is present in the water in Adams County.”
When WBEZ showed the discrepancies to state Sen. Tom Cullerton, a Democrat from west-suburban Villa Park and co-chair of the joint committee investigating the outbreaks, he said they demonstrate the Rauner administration’s intent “to keep the General Assembly in the dark.”
“It’s truly pitiful. It’s absolutely pitiful,” Cullerton said.
Making matters worse, Cullerton said Rauner’s administration tried to make the committee’s work harder by giving him 442 paper copies instead of an electronic version. What’s more, he said, the stack arrived at his office in a box, with the papers jumbled out of chronology so his staff had to work to put them in order.
“It looks like they literally just threw them up in the air,” he said. “You could have an email from August 2015, and the next one on top of it says July of 2017. The next one says January ’16. They literally just made it the most difficult process ever.”
Aside from lawmakers, government transparency experts are also raising questions about the way Rauner’s administration is withholding information about the Legionnaires’ outbreaks.
“I can’t fathom what exemption they think would apply to these documents,” said Don Craven, a Springfield-based lawyer who is general counsel for the Illinois Press Association and other journalism groups. “There are no privacy concerns. They’re not talking about particular people. They’re not talking about particular veterans …There’s a discussion of how things are operating at the veterans’ home. None of this is exempt.”
Craven, who has litigated nearly 150 open-records disputes, said lawmakers are owed an explanation.
“I would call the directors of these two departments in and ask them to explain why these materials supplied to the General Assembly have been redacted,” Craven said. “Any motivation they had to redact these records falls outside of FOIA and outside the legal realm, which leaves the political realm.”
The former state official in charge of helping enforce the state public records law also raised concerned about the scope of the redactions.
“Citizens own these records. Citizens are entitled to these records, and citizens should have these records,” said Mutchler, a government-transparency lawyer now in Pennsylvania who has handled thousands of open-records disputes.
Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover Illinois state government for WBEZ 91.5FM Chicago.