SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — When Illinois lawmakers revamped the Freedom of Information Act in 2009 and created an outside appeals process for public records requests denied by state government, they made an important exception — themselves.
Records requests denied by the General Assembly are not subject to review by the attorney general's public access counselor, the counselor's office said in a letter this week to The Associated Press.
That exception for the Legislature means that even as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner routinely discloses his appointment calendars in response to AP requests, the leaders of the Legislature could deny a similar AP request for their calendars and emails — with no right of appeal. Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan — who has been in that post for more than 30 years — doesn't even keep a calendar or use email, his spokesman Steve Brown said.
"It does not make for good government," David Melton, senior adviser to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said of the exception for the General Assembly.
Even some advocates of open government had overlooked the provision exempting the General Assembly from FOIA appeals. The issue has come up as Illinois is mired in a fracas between Rauner and legislative Democrats that has left the state without a budget for nine months. Many lawmakers admit that nothing much is getting done in Springfield.
Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said allowing review of open records denials by the attorney general would violate constitutional separation of power provisions between executive and legislative branches. Christine Radogno, the Senate's Republican leader, would not address the issue during an unrelated news conference Thursday, but added, "This is an area that we're trying to work through."
Eileen Boyce, spokeswoman for Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who spearheaded the 2009 FOIA revision that created the counselor, did not answer a question about whether the Legislature should submit to the review system, but said that the attorney general "has strongly advocated for greater transparency by all branches of government."
The AP participated in a 50-state project for Sunshine Week, the national celebration of government transparency, by requesting emails and appointment calendars for the week of Feb. 1-7 from each legislative leader.
The Senate responded that legislative immunity granted by the state Constitution shields it from answering FOIA requests. It also argued, along with the House, that it is exempt from releasing emails and calendars, saying that individual legislators are not "public bodies" under FOIA and that the law makes exceptions for "preliminary drafts" and the personal privacy of constituents.
Asked whether Speaker Madigan believes legislative leaders should release information as Rauner has, Madigan's spokesman Steve Brown said he'd check and call back "if I have anything to say." He did not call back.
Democratic Sen. Kwame Raoul of Chicago, the Senate sponsor of the 2009 FOIA alterations, said too much immediate release of information could stymie the always-complex, often-delicate process of lawmaking "if every exchange and every conversation is subject to scrutiny."
"We have enough trouble getting stuff done to begin with," Raoul said.