Release of emails by Chicago mayor doesn't end dispute

AP News
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Posted: Dec 22, 2016 3:52 PM

CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's decision to release thousands of pages of private emails does not end a dispute in Illinois about public access to such emails from him and other officials when they deal with government business.

Emanuel announced late Wednesday that he had settled a lawsuit by a government watchdog group over emails from his personal accounts, but it allows him and his personal lawyer to decide which emails are public records and which are not.

It's not clear what emails were withheld, and the Emanuel administration said it still disputes whether the private emails were actually public documents.

The watchdog Better Government Association said the group didn't have the time or money to keep fighting its lawsuit. But the Chicago Tribune, which filed a similar lawsuit, said it was not ready to settle for the 2,700 pages of emails the mayor's office released and will press ahead with its legal challenge.

"It should not have required extended legal action to protect the public's right to this information," Bruce Dold, the paper's editor and publisher, said in a statement.

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THE LEGAL BATTLES

The Better Government Association sued the mayor in October 2015 to force compliance with a Freedom of Information Act request for official emails sent from Emanuel's private account. The Tribune had sued a month earlier, asking a judge to determine whether the mayor's use of personal email accounts to conduct government business violated Illinois' open records laws.

Emanuel has argued that emails sent on private devices are automatically exempt from disclosure laws, but two Cook County judges have ruled against him. That included a judge who earlier this month ordered the city and the mayor to produce an index of certain private account emails and text messages.

The settlement between the Better Government Association and Emanuel was viewed by some open-records advocates as a major victory.

"This makes clear that public officials are going to have to produce the records they may take on private devices," said Don Craven, Springfield-based lawyer for the Illinois Press Association.

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INSIDE THE EMAILS

The emails clearly illustrate Emanuel's frequent attempts to engage with influential people in business, government and the media — and the access they had to him on at least one private email address.

They included David Plouffe, a top official at rideshare company Uber and President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign manager. Plouffe contacted Emanuel about the issue of signs that needed to be placed on vehicles doing pickups at the city's two major airports.

When Alan Warms, an investor who contributed thousands of dollars to Emanuel's campaign committee, complained about a "HUGE uptick in crime ... in my neighborhood," the mayor responded within minutes that more officers were "just added' to the area and that he was passing along Warms' address to the police district.

Emanuel also heard from hedge fund billionaire, Ken Griffin, who complained about a path on the lakefront that's used by pedestrians and bikes and asked whether the city could "accept private funding" to make it safer. Emanuel responded that Griffin's idea to paint speed bumps on the path was a good one.

Just this week, Griffin pledged $12 million to create separate paths for runners and bikers.

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WHAT'S NEXT

Andy Shaw, the Better Government Association's president and CEO, told the Tribune that while it is possible a judge would have ordered more emails released after a protracted legal battle, the settlement accomplished its objectives of compelling the city to release private emails that deal with public issues and a pledge from Emanuel "that he wouldn't use private emails to do public business."

He also said that while the agreement allows the city to claim exemptions and make redactions to certain emails, "If we feel they are excessive or inappropriate, we will see them in court."

While the association's public records request sought all private emails from Emanuel and two aides that dealt with public business, the Tribune's lawsuit seeks emails on more specific topics and the mayor's private text messages.

The settlement suggests that when the issue returns to court, the city will still make the argument that it didn't need to release the emails.

"The parties disagree about whether emails stored on personal, non-city email accounts related to the transaction of public business are subject to disclosure under (the Freedom of Information Act)," the settlement says.