For the Good of Illinois

Champaign News-Gazette: Public Pays for the Cover-Up

November 22, 2017 08:00 AM
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Public pays for the cover-up

Wed, 11/22/2017 - 7:00am | The News-Gazette

Given the choice of obeying the law or not, too many public officials choose to try to keep public information secret. 

Government bodies in Illinois have a bad habit of denying legitimate requests for information from news outlets, often hoping to delay release of the information until long after a story has become newsworthy.

The University of Illinois did exactly that a couple years ago when The News-Gazette sought expense and travel records related to a presidential search.

The request was perfectly valid. But UI officials denied it, forcing an appeal by the newspaper to the attorney general's office.

The UI eventually had to give up the documents, and The News-Gazette ran a story on what they revealed. But the UI got what it wanted — delay, delay and more delay.

That kind of gamesmanship is common in this state, where public officials only embrace the public interest when it's convenient or helpful to them.

But it's a dangerous game they're playing, one directly at odds with the public's financial interests.

The College of DuPage, caught up in a scandal that forced its president out of office and resulted in a voter cleansing of the board of trustees, recently tried the same stalling tactics with the Chicago Tribune.

The newspaper eventually got the information it was seeking — and a lot more. The college and its foundation recently was ordered to pay $225,000 in legal fees to reimburse the newspaper for the legal costs it incurred while in pursuit of a court order forcing the disclosure of the information the college wanted to keep secret.

Further, the litigation spawned by the obstinacy of the college and its foundation resulted in a ground-breaking appellate court decision that the foundation is subject to the state's Freedom of Information Act.

The foundation, one similar to the UI Foundation, argued that the state's freedom-of-information law does not apply to it because it is a charitable foundation that plays no public role.

The appellate court dismissed that legal balderdash by noting that the college foundation controls the college's fundraising operation and was staffed by employees whose salaries and employee benefits are paid for by the taxpayers.

The information the newspaper was seeking involved a federal subpoena issued to the college and its foundation. The subpoena was issued in the aftermath of an investigation into how the college spent public funds conducted by a taxpayer watchdog group, OpentheBooks.com, that was followed up by The Tribune.

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