BioReporter for ProPublica. I'm often tracking politics, rooting for the Cubs & the Cats, and listening to Curtis or the Clash.
[Danielle Scruggs, special to ProPublica]
The bank’s board meeting on April 28, 2016, started with a prayer. Then it turned to plans for keeping the bank alive.
That week, federal regulators had signed off on a deal allowing new owners to take control of Illinois Service Federal Savings and Loan, one of the last Black-owned banks in the country. For more than a year, regulators had warned the bank could be shut down if it didn’t raise capital. They had also ordered it to improve its management.
This story was originally published by ProPublica Illinois
Combative and, at times, dismissive, Chicago’s first-term mayor gathers power as she leads the city’s fight against the coronavirus.
No one questioned that Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been firmly in charge of Chicago’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But during a briefing Lightfoot had with the city’s aldermen on March 30, she made it clear anyway.
Leaked Recordings Reveal Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot Firmly in Charge and City Alderman Left Largely on the Sidelines
ProPublica Illinois reporter Mick Dumke looks at the state’s political issues and personalities in this occasional column.
The Chicago City Council’s Transportation Committee has an annual budget of more than $467,000 to cover expenses related to its work on legislation and government oversight.
But little of that work was on display during the committee’s March 6 meeting.
“Fairly quick agenda this morning,” the committee chair, Ald. Anthony Beale, said at the start. He and the six other aldermen then ran through its 70-page agenda in about 23 minutes, approving dozens of ordinances that dealt with hyperlocal administrative matters such as signs, awnings, light fixtures or sidewalk cafes for particular addresses.
That was typical for Beale’s committee. While it rarely does in-depth legislative work, the committee and its budget have been far more valuable for Beale as perks.
Beale, alderman of the far South Side 9th Ward, has used committee funds to hire employees — eight were on the payroll as of December — though he acknowledged they don’t spend all their time on committee work. He’s spent Transportation Committee money on his own transportation, including payments on a Chevy Tahoe SUV and thousands of dollars in parking expenses. And committee funds have gone toward furniture for his City Hall office, including a bourbon cherry wardrobe cabinet, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Transportation Committee isn’t an outlier.
At great cost to taxpayers, the City Council’s 16 legislative committees are the heart of a favor-trading system that’s enabled mayors to rule like monarchs distributing favors to loyalists. At the same time, the committees have failed to provide even basic oversight of city government.
Many meet infrequently, and when they do, they frequently rubber-stamp agendas in a matter of minutes — often without a quorum of half the members. The budgets for the committees added up to $5.8 million in 2018, but the amount each committee receives is not tied to the volume of legislation it reviews or the regularity of its meetings.
Instead, funding appears more closely aligned with tradition and the clout of the chairs.
Chicago aldermen have also made it almost impossible for the public to see what they’re up to. Committee meeting schedules are posted online and meetings are open to the public, but they’re not broadcast, recorded or transcribed — unless a chair makes arrangements.
The topper: The council has passed laws to make sure committee operations are kept from any oversight. In 2016, aldermen voted 25-23 to kill a proposal to allow the city’s inspector general to investigate and audit the council. Aldermen then passed a substitute ordinance that explicitly blocked the inspector general from looking into many council functions, including committee spending.
Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, who will be sworn in with aldermen on Monday, has called for changing the law so the inspector general can audit the council and its committees. She and key aldermen continue to negotiate over who will lead the committees. As current chairs maneuver to hold onto power, reformers say it’s time for significant changes.
City Inspector General Joe Ferguson said Lightfoot and the new council face an urgent need to open the books and bring accountability “with respect to budgets, expenditures, staffing and operations at both the whole Council and Committee levels.”
“Government cannot fully escape corruption, mismanagement and waste without accountability,” Ferguson wrote in a statement responding to ProPublica Illinois’ findings. “That applies as equally to a legislative body as it does an executive, and even more so in Chicago, with its history of a weak, compliant City Council most noted for a decades-long trail of corruption. At this moment in the City’s history, both the public and the incoming Mayor desperately need a productively engaged City Council that fully inhabits its legislative oversight responsibility.”
In most legislative bodies, members pick their own leaders and committee chairs. The Chicago City Council’s rules say that’s what aldermen should do as well. For decades, though, the mayor has picked council committee chairs. It’s no secret at City Hall that only aldermen who support the mayor’s initiatives are rewarded with the posts, though they often claim otherwise.
As Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. tells it, he was shocked when, in 2007, former Mayor Richard M. Daley offered to make him chair of the Special Events Committee. Burnett had never led a committee before. And he had been pushing an affordable housing plan that was more aggressive than the mayor wanted.
“I thought there might be a hit out on me,” Burnett joked. Instead, Daley came up with a watered-down affordable housing plan. After Burnett signed on, “the next thing I knew, I got a committee.”
Despite their back-and-forth over affordable housing, Burnett had supported almost all of Daley’s agenda, including the mayor’s plan to demolish dozens of public-housing buildings and replace them with mixed-income developments.
In 2011, Rahm Emanuel campaigned for mayor on a promise to rid City Hall of corruption. He even suggested he might replace Ed Burke, the dean of the City Council, as chair of the Finance Committee, the council’s most powerful. Once in office, Emanuel eliminated three other council committees and shaved funding for others.
But soon after, the city’s annual budgets — proposed by the mayor and approved by aldermen — began boosting the money available to committees again. By 2017, the council committees were spending more than when Emanuel became mayor.
Emanuel also let council insiders stay on as committee chairs — including, most notably, Burke — so he could count on their help advancing his agenda. Some loyalists got promotions. In 2013, for example, Emanuel shifted Burnett to the Traffic Committee, which had an annual budget of about $215,000, a bump from the $155,000 he had to spend as Special Events Committee chair. The Traffic Committee budget has since grown to about $249,000.
Emanuel’s chosen committee chairs have proven to be reliable supporters. Two of the current chairs sided with the mayor on 93% of divided council roll call votes from 2017 to 2018 — and those are the most independent voting records of any of the committee leaders. Burnett and five others voted with Emanuel 100% of the time, according to a study by political scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The committees are valuable because of a simple fact: Like most public officials, every alderman would like more staff and money to work with.
For years, the city’s annual budget — approximately $10.7 billion for 2019 — has allocated funds for each alderman to hire three aides. Most aldermen say that’s not enough to manage their daily barrage of constituent service requests, let alone to prepare for their jobs as legislators.
Aldermen have a limited number of options for adding staff. They can try to cut office expenses and spend more money on employees. They can also use campaign funds to hire more people, the approach taken by Brendan Reilly of the downtown 42nd Ward.
That’s not easy for most aldermen, especially those who struggle to raise money.
Chairing a committee offers another possibility. Committee staff members are exempt from city rules meant to prevent political hiring and firing, which means the chairs can fill the jobs any way they want, for any reason.
Tom Tunney, the current chair of the Special Events Committee, said he needs extra help to keep up with constituent needs in his busy ward, the 44th, based on the North Side’s Lakeview neighborhood.
He acknowledged that most of the legislation his committee oversees — concerning festivals, cultural events and other matters connected to the arts — comes from the mayor’s office and the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. The committee had three employees as of December, but since they only spend about a week each month preparing for committee meetings, Tunney also assigns them to help with issues in his ward.
“Do they just work on committee stuff? No,” Tunney said.
Tunney conceded it’s not fair that committee chairs essentially get more help to take care of their wards. But he’s also skeptical of proposals that would require committee employees to limit their work to committee matters, because he doesn’t think they would have enough to do.
“I wouldn’t agree with that because practically; I want my people working all the time, given my workaholic nature,” he said.
Last month, Tunney said he would like to be considered for Finance Committee chair after the new council is sworn in on Monday, and other committee chairs are lining up behind him.
Burnett said he, too, counts on committee staff to help with ward matters. At the end of 2018, he had eight employees on the Traffic Committee payroll.
“It helps you with your ward, especially if you’ve got a ward like mine,” said Burnett, whose 27th Ward includes parts of the near North and West sides that have boomed with development over the last two decades. “I get everything from yuppies worried about permit parking to people [dealing with] sewage. It’s never ending. … So the extra staff people help, and they do dual roles. Everybody works on the ward and everybody works on the committee, too.”
Burnett said his committee employees put in a lot of work to prepare for the committee’s meetings. But that wasn’t evident when it convened on March 6.
Several minutes after the meeting was scheduled to start, the chairman’s seat was still empty. So were most of the seats around them. Only four of the committee’s 16 members had shown up.
Finally, an aide to Burnett got a call on his cellphone and waved Marty Quinn over. Quinn, alderman of the 13th Ward on the Southwest Side, appeared taken aback for a moment. Then he understood: Burnett wasn’t going to show. Quinn was going to have to lead the meeting.
Under City Council rules, at least half of the members of a committee need to be present for a quorum. But neither Quinn nor the other three aldermen noted that they were four short. Quinn gaveled the meeting to order and moved to pass the first 19 proposed ordinances on the committee’s 12-page agenda.
“All those in favor?”
“Aye!” the other three aldermen said in unison.
“In the opinion of the chair, the ayes have it,” Quinn said.
As is usually the case with the Traffic Committee, each of those ordinances concerned parking restrictions, loading zones or traffic signs for single addresses or streets. And if the local alderman has approved, the committee signs off.
In a series of rapid-fire motions and choruses of “aye,” Quinn and his three colleagues ran through the next 10 pages of ordinances with no discussion or break in their rhythm.
All told, the meeting took less than three and a half minutes.
The public has no ready way to see how many people are hired by the committees or what they do. Annual city budgets allocate money for committee staff. But only the budget for the Finance Committee specifies the number or titles of committee employees, giving the other committee chairs the power to use those funds as they see fit.
At the end of 2018, council committees had a total of 133 employees, according to city payroll records. That’s 108 more than were listed in the city budget approved by aldermen and released to the public. Most of the employees are listed in payroll records as “legislative aide.”
The Finance Committee has long had the largest committee budget, as well as the broadest jurisdiction, including city bonds, taxes, legal settlements and privatization deals. It also housed the city’s workers’ compensation program. In January, Burke, its longtime chairman, was charged in federal court with attempted extortion; Burke has denied any wrongdoing. Emanuel then had Burke deposed as finance chair and moved the workers’ comp program to the city comptroller’s office.
For years, the Finance Committee’s accounting was even more opaque than other committees’. According to the city budget, the Finance Committee had a 2018 budget of $2.3 million, which included the salaries of 25 employees. But expense records show that Burke had access to far more money and workers. Burke kept between 61 and 78 people on the payroll at different points in the year, costing a total of about $3.4 million in worker pay. Employees listed as full time were paid salaries ranging from about $21,000 a year for a legislative aide to $171,000 for the chief administrative officer of the workers’ comp program.
Following the Finance Committee money gets tricky fast. In addition to money allocated for the committee, Burke also paid workers out of funds he controlled in other city departments. One employee was paid out of the budget for the Fire Department’s workers’ compensation costs; others were covered out of allocations for “investigation costs” buried deep within the budget.
At least four employees were paid from multiple funds during the course of the year.
Last December, the Finance Committee transferred $862,000 from its reported expenditures to the balance sheets of other city departments. The end-of-the-year accounting maneuver came after Burke’s staff said some employees assigned to the committee should have been paid out of funds available for the workers’ compensation program. The spending records don’t show what the employees’ duties were.
The complicated money flow — and lack of oversight — put Burke in the enviable position of being able to dispense favors and largesse to other aldermen. For years, he essentially loaned employees to other aldermen who needed help, as WTTW reported in March. On occasion, the Finance Committee paid expenses for other aldermen, such as when it reimbursed 40th Ward Alderman Pat O’Connor about $2,900 total for travel to conferences of the National League of Cities in Nashville in 2015 and Kansas City the next year. O’Connor did not respond to a request for comment.
From 2015 to 2018, the Finance Committee also paid more than $46,000 to cellphone provider Verizon Wireless. Invoices don’t provide details about the account or why the bills were so high.
Burke didn’t respond to requests for comment.
As chair of the Committee on Committees, Rules and Ethics, 8th Ward Alderman Michelle Harris oversees council procedures and has the power to decide which legislation is assigned to which committees, or to hold up legislation altogether.
“I do everything I can to be aboveboard and be transparent because I am the rules chair, but every now and then it doesn’t work out that way,” Harris said in an interview.
In April 2018, $8,820 in committee funds went to pay a South Side company to print and mail an 8th Ward newsletter, according to a copy of the invoice obtained from the city under the Freedom of Information Act.
Harris said the mailing was focused on city services and wasn’t political, but she conceded it should have come out of her ward account. She blamed the error on a new employee and promised to “have her re-trained.” Harris also wondered why city finance officials didn’t catch the mistake.
“What I’m further concerned about is that it wasn’t flagged anywhere along the process,” she said.
Between 2015 and 2018, Harris paid $82,000 in Rules Committee funds to The Salient Group, a downtown firm, for what was described in a February 2018 invoice as “PR Consulting.”
Harris said Salient’s president has attended committee meetings and helped Harris respond to news coverage about her role as chair, such as criticism that she has buried legislation when it was opposed by Emanuel and his allies.
“I’ve gotten torn up on by some people, so I’ve had to come up with a strategy about how to deal with those issues,” Harris said. Asked if all of the PR work was connected to the committee, she said, “You are 10,000% correct.”
Beale, chair of the Transportation Committee, also dipped into committee funds for public relations.
Beale became the committee’s leader after a slow, steady climb up the City Hall ladder. In 2007, Daley picked Beale to lead the council’s Landmarks Committee. Its previous chair, Arenda Troutman, had been charged in federal court with taking a bribe and then lost her reelection bid.
Three years later, Daley moved Beale to the helm of the Police and Fire Committee, which had a larger budget. When Emanuel was elected mayor in 2011, he shifted Beale to chair the Transportation Committee.
The new post was another boost for Beale. The Transportation Committee has an annual budget more than twice as large as his old committee’s. And most of its work consists of rubber-stamping hyperlocal administrative ordinances. Between 2015 and 2018, 99% of the ordinances introduced to the committee were passed, records show, typically without discussion or debate.
In addition to putting eight employees on the payroll, Beale used committee funds to pay $15,000 in 2015 and 2016 to the public relations firm MK Communications for “professional services,” including “project strategy, planning and management, media, writing and editing,” according to invoices.
Another $13,000 went to Rightsize Facility, an office furniture company, for items that included a bourbon cherry wardrobe cabinet delivered to City Hall, records show.
Beale also used committee funds to pay for a car and parking costs. More than $9,000 went to GM Financial Leasing for a 2015 Chevy Tahoe SUV, records show. Another $11,000 covered parking expenses.
Pointing to the committee’s 70-page agenda after its March meeting, Beale said all his committee staff positions are needed.
“That’s a lot of work, man,” he said.
But Beale said those employees don’t limit their work to committee matters.
“I mean, people call downtown for a city service, of course they’re going to serve the people,” Beale said. “I’m not going to tell a [committee] staff person, ‘This is an aldermanic call, someone calling to have a street light put on,’ and transfer that call. You take care of that city service. You’re still doing a service to the public.”
Marilyn Katz, the president of MK Communications, said her firm works on a range of issues with Beale. They include matters before the committee, such as taxi regulations, as well as ward issues such as housing and the opening of a Whole Foods store. She said she couldn’t comment on the committee expenditures but would ask Beale.
The alderman didn’t respond to that or other requests for comment about committee spending.
In recent weeks, Beale has been among the council chairs lining up support from colleagues to hold onto their committee posts. They’ve also been working to block 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack, a Lightfoot ally and head of the council’s Progressive Caucus, from becoming the next chair of the Finance Committee.
Perhaps the highest cost of the current committee system is the hardest to measure: the failure of the City Council to provide oversight of city government and, when necessary, serve as a check on mayoral power.
More than a dozen people were reportedly shot over the first weekend of April — a number that’s not unusual in Chicago as the weather warms up. But the city’s ongoing struggles with gun violence were not mentioned during the April 8 meeting of the Committee on Public Safety. Just one item was on the agenda: an ordinance that would temporarily allow helicopters to land near McCormick Place so they could be exhibited during the upcoming convention of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The committee rarely holds discussions of crime trends or policing strategies. That’s been true even within the last year, as aldermen have drafted and introduced proposals to create community oversight of the police department. After one proposal sat in the committee for two years, aldermen shot it down last fall. The committee chair, Alderman Ariel Reboyras, of the 30th Ward, hasn’t held votes on other proposals.
Last October, 20 aldermen signed a letter asking Reboyras for a hearing on a report from the office of the city inspector general that found police officers assigned to city schools lacked proper training, standards and accountability. Reboyras hasn’t called that hearing either.
From 2015 through 2018, 12 of the 25 ordinances approved by the committee concerned donations of used fire trucks and other vehicles to nonprofit groups or towns in Mexico, Puerto Rico or Argentina. The committee also considered 25 mayoral appointments to city boards. It approved all but one.
Only six of the committee’s 19 aldermen were present for its April 8 meeting, well below the 10 needed for a quorum. Once again, no aldermen asked for a quorum vote, so the meeting continued.
The committee members had just two questions about the helicopter-landing proposal. Had it been done before? Yes, a police sergeant told them — in 2011 and 2015, when the police chiefs last held their conference in Chicago.
Reboyras, the chair, asked the other question: “Where was the previous conference held?”
Orlando, the sergeant told him.
With that, the committee voted unanimously to approve the ordinance. The meeting lasted about five and a half minutes.
As of the end of last year, the committee had two employees, records show. But Reboyras didn’t want to talk after the April meeting about their responsibilities.
Asked if they spend all their time on committee work, he said, “What are you trying to get at?” Asked again if the committee staff do work in his ward, Reboyras said, “Yes, they do,” and walked off.
ProPublica Illinois reporter Mick Dumke looks at the state’s political issues and personalities in this occasional column.
Lori Lightfoot was running early. Most political campaigns struggle to stay on schedule, especially as Election Day speeds closer. But in the final stretch of the runoff election for Chicago mayor, Lightfoot appeared to be rolling with such confidence that her campaign started holding rallies well ahead of their announced start times.
Meanwhile, Toni Preckwinkle, fighting the perception that Lightfoot had all the momentum, showed flashes of the candor and personality many voters wish they had seen from her throughout the mayoral race.
“This has been an —” Preckwinkle paused during our interview last week before finishing the sentence: “interesting campaign.”
Chicagoans don’t have much experience with open mayoral elections — this is the first in decades that doesn’t include an incumbent or anointed heir. But it turns out that all sorts of things can happen when democracy moves in. After Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in September that he wouldn’t seek a third term, 14 candidates made the ballot to succeed him.
Because none received a majority in the first round of voting in February, the top two finishers — Lightfoot and Preckwinkle — went into the April 2 runoff.
Whoever wins will become Chicago’s first black woman mayor.
On many issues, they share nearly identical positions. Both Lightfoot, an attorney and first-time candidate, and Preckwinkle, the Cook County Board president, present themselves as progressives who will focus on safety, schools and jobs in the city’s neighborhoods. Both say they'll address the needs of South and West side communities desperate for investment as well as rapidly gentrifying areas extending from downtown where housing costs are soaring.
But voters are demanding a change after eight years under Emanuel and 22 years under his predecessor, Richard M. Daley. In response, the two candidates have tried to cast each other as part of the city’s political machine. Lightfoot has hit Preckwinkle for chairing the Cook County Democratic Party and receiving fundraising help from Ald. Ed Burke (14), who was charged in federal court in January with attempted extortion of a Burger King franchisee in his ward. For
her part, Preckwinkle calls Lightfoot “the ultimate insider” for accepting appointments in the Daley and Emanuel administrations.
To get an up-close glimpse of how the race was unfolding, I asked both campaigns if I could hang out with them for a bit. Aides to Lightfoot invited me to follow her to several get-out-the-vote stops, while Preckwinkle's team scheduled me for an interview at her campaign headquarters.
When Lightfoot arrived early for a rally at her campaign field office on West 47th Street, in the working class Brighton Park neighborhood, her volunteers and supporters were ready. As Lightfoot strode into the storefront office in a flash of green — wearing the emerald coat and green-checked fedora she’d put on for the St. Patrick’s Day parade earlier that day — dozens of her backers chanted “LO-RI! LO-RI! LO-RI!”
“We have the opportunity to do something really special,” Lightfoot told the group crowded around her, most of them Latinx younger than 30, as an aide translated her remarks into Spanish. “It’s really clear that black and brown communities are not getting their fair share of resources.”
Lightfoot then led the room in a chant of “Sí Se Puede,” or “Yes, it can be done,” a longtime activist and civil rights rallying cry.
Lightfoot’s critics on the left say her record is anything but progressive. A former federal prosecutor, Lightfoot was appointed by Daley to lead the Office of Professional Standards, which oversaw police accountability from within the department, and then was picked by Emanuel to preside over the police board, which reviews police discipline cases. She repeatedly failed to hold officers accountable for misconduct, her critics charge, with some going so far as to say she’s essentially a cop herself. Lightfoot counters that she worked to change the system from within.
“We can’t just yield the floor to people whose views we don’t agree with,” she said in a recent interview. “We’ve got to be in the room, because if we’re not, our people are always going to get screwed.”
None of that came up when Lightfoot greeted potential voters on the 1600 block of West 47th Street in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. As Lightfoot bought tamales from a street vendor, a beaming young mother nearby turned to her curious daughter and said, “It’s Lori Lightfoot — in our neighborhood!”
Lightfoot stepped into a supermercado, where shoppers and employees stopped what they were doing while she introduced herself and shook hands. A cashier explained who Lightfoot was to her customers.
“She’s going to be the next mayor of Chicago,” the cashier said. She laughed, then added, “Well, she might be.”
Right. This being an actual election, the voters have to weigh in first, and Preckwinkle vows it’s not over.
During much of the mayoral race, Preckwinkle has seemed defensive, evasive and scripted, even reading talking points from her notes during candidate forums. But when I sat down with her last week at her River North campaign headquarters, Preckwinkle resembled the blunt, confident politician I’d interviewed in the past — including her first two terms as county board president, when she focused on repairing county finances and addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
I suggested she had been playing defense since the revelations about Burke and his fundraising effort for her, and the campaign had not gone as she’d expected.
“That is an understatement,” she said, and then laughed.
Preckwinkle noted, as she has before, that when she served as an alderman from 1991 to 2010, she had an independent record. She was not friends or allies with Burke, who helped advance Daley’s agenda while Preckwinkle often opposed it.
But it’s not clear if that part of the story ever sunk in with voters.
“I don’t know,” she said, though “it’s what I always say.”
Voters have other concerns, Preckwinkle said. “When I go out in the communities, what people are really talking about are their neighborhoods. In Logan Square, Humboldt Park and Pilsen, I hear people say, ‘We’ve lived in this community for generations, and I’m not sure we can afford to stay here.’ On the West Side, all you hear is, ‘There’s never any investment in our communities.’ Both of those challenges have to be addressed.”
When I asked how the city would find the resources to rebuild areas in need, she — like Lightfoot — didn’t have specific answers. But Preckwinkle said her record as alderman and county board president shows she can get things done.
Both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle have said they’re opposed to current proposals for a taxpayer subsidy of as much as $1.3 billion for Lincoln Yards, a development along the North Branch of the Chicago River with 6,000 planned housing units.
Lightfoot vowed in a recent interview to hold up payments for the project if the City Council approves the subsidies before the new mayor takes office in May. Preckwinkle said she too would like to slow the project.
For now, she said, “I’m focused on April 2.”
And that’s when things get truly interesting: After months of visiting neighborhoods around the
city, the new mayor will have to start showing she can fix them, too.
ProPublica Illinois is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. Sign up for The ProPublica Illinois newsletter for weekly updates.
The scene hardly had the look of history being made. On an Election Day with low turnout, the voting booths stood empty. Outside, the surrounding blocks in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood were mostly quiet except for the sound of the bitterly cold wind.
On a nearby corner, Maria Hadden, the challenger for alderman of the city’s 49th Ward, waited to greet voters. Finally, a compact man in a heavy coat approached. He proudly told Hadden he had lived in Rogers Park for 30 years and was going to vote for her. They shook gloved hands.
In Hadden’s view, the race came down to whether residents felt their neighborhood would remain vibrant and affordable.
“Will we keep our economic and racial diversity?” she said. “Is the current leadership able to maintain that, or do we need new leadership?”
That evening, as totals streamed in, it became clear that voters demanded a change. Hadden overwhelmed Joe Moore, a 28-year incumbent, with 64 percent of the vote. She became the first openly queer black woman elected to the City Council, and one of the first black aldermen ever to come from the North Side.
Hadden’s victory was widely seen as one of the biggest upsets in Tuesday’s elections. But it actually reflects broader local and national political trends in the battle over the future of the Democratic Party.
Residents across Chicago worry they can no longer afford to live or invest in the city. As Mayor Rahm Emanuel tries to win approval for several massive new development projects before he leaves office in May, many voters are outraged at the idea of using public money to subsidize them. At the same time, residents in some neighborhoods remain desperate for development. Organizers north and south are campaigning to lift a state ban on rent control and build more affordable housing.
The 14 candidates for mayor all agreed on one point: To confront these challenges, Chicago didn’t need anyone like Emanuel. Most tried to distance themselves from his record of school closings, Wall Street campaign contributions and insider ties, touting themselves as progressives.
Of course, the two top finishers have their own ties to the political establishment. Toni Preckwinkle is the Cook County Board president and chair of the county Democratic Party. She also accepted fundraising help from 50-year Alderman Ed Burke, of the 14th Ward, who’s facing federal extortion charges. Preckwinkle has since repudiated Burke, who was re-elected despite his legal problems. Lightfoot, meanwhile, served in the mayoral administrations of Emanuel and his predecessor, Richard M. Daley.
Still, Preckwinkle and Lightfoot both tout their work on criminal justice reform, and they vow to pay attention to long-neglected parts of the city.
And as black women, they offer an obvious, visible break from the past. Chicago has elected one woman and one black man as mayor, but it has never been led by a woman of color. That 182-year streak is about to end.
Months ago, Moore sensed that his re-election bid in the city’s far northeast corner could be tough. He watched from afar as 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez toppled another Joe, longtime U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, in a diverse, liberal New York City district not unlike the 49th Ward. In the age of President Donald Trump, Democrats seen as compromising or shopworn are sometimes viewed as part of the problem.
Moore first won office in a runoff in 1991. For the next 20 years, he was one of the City Council’s leading critics of Daley. From 2007 to 2011, Moore sided with the mayor on just 51 percent of divided roll-call votes, the lowest rate in the council, according to an analysis by Professor Dick Simpson and other researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
But when Daley retired and Emanuel took the reins, Moore became one of his closest council allies and his reputation as an independent withered. From 2017 to 2018, Moore voted with the mayor 98 percent of the time.
As Tuesday’s election neared, Moore reminded constituents of his progressive accomplishments: He helped bring community policing to Chicago; pioneered participatory budgeting, in which residents get to vote on how to spend infrastructure funds; and added affordable and public housing to the ward.
Hadden criticized Moore’s alliance with Emanuel. She targeted him for accepting campaign contributions from developers and landlords while many residents struggled to remain in the gentrifying area.
By Tuesday afternoon, Hadden thought she had a chance.
“But if nothing else, we’ve got new people voting, new people involved in the campaign, and we’re going to keep organizing,” she said. “In some ways, we’ve already won by putting the community’s vision first.”
Within a few hours, she had won the election, too
ProPublica Illinois is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. Sign up for The ProPublica Illinois newsletter for weekly updates.
<span data-mce-type="bookmark" style="display: inline-block; width: 0px; overflow: hidden; line-height: 0;" class="mce_SELRES_start">
As she drove through her South Side ward one morning last month, Alderman Pat Dowell slowed up alongside a business on the corner of Prairie Avenue and 51st Street. The owners of the business wanted to hang a sign on the Prairie side of the building, “but I’d rather not have it on a residential street,” said Dowell, who has led the 3rd Ward since 2007. In her view, the sign would need to be on 51st, like the other signs on the block, so the area had a consistent look.
She saw it as an example of why she and her 49 City Council colleagues have so much power over their wards, down to their alleys and sidewalks.
Residents “need to have a go-to person, someone you can expect to address your issue,” Dowell said. “That person needs to be on the ground with you.”
From 2011 through 2018, Dowell was the chief sponsor of more than 900 separate ordinances in the City Council, most of them pertaining to such hyperlocal issues as business sign permits, driveway alley access and parking meter hours for single addresses or blocks.
That volume of ward-specific legislation is typical for Chicago aldermen. Dowell and others have fought for more oversight of city government. But the city’s legislative branch is largely consumed with processing small-bore and neighborhood administrative matters, with few aldermen taking the lead on issues beyond their ward boundaries, a ProPublica Illinois analysis of more than 100,000 pieces of legislation has found.
The structure of the council has received new attention over the last several months, as the city’s political establishment has been rocked by scandals involving aldermen. In January, federal prosecutors charged Ald. Ed Burke, the council dean and Finance Committee chair, with trying to shake down a Burger King franchisee that needed building and driveway permits for a restaurant in his Southwest Side ward. Burke has said he is not guilty.
That was followed by reports that council Zoning Committee chair Ald. Danny Solis wore a wire to record conversations with Burke while Solis himself was under investigation for alleged corruption, including trading political favors for sex. Another retiring alderman, former police officer Ald. Willie Cochran, is slated to go on trial this year after being charged with extorting businesses in his ward that needed his support for development projects and licenses.
In response, outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel and candidates in the Feb. 26 election to replace him have proposed a series of ethics reforms.
But tinkering with some of the official rules of the council is unlikely to alter the way it works. That’s because it functions within a political structure that has become ingrained over decades, partly through favor-trading.
At the height of Chicago’s Democratic machine in the 1950s and ’60s, aldermen and ward bosses had patronage workers, known as precinct captains, who helped provide residents with garbage cans, tree trimming and other services. The residents were then expected to vote for favored candidates.
The current arrangement, said Scott Waguespack, alderman of the North Side’s 32nd Ward, is “just a little more sophisticated than the garbage can version.”
Except in rare instances, the City Council signs off on the mayor’s agenda, even letting the city’s executive pick its legislative leaders. In return, aldermen are allowed to reign over matters large and small in their wards, which some openly describe as “fiefdoms.” Businesses and residents have to call on their aldermen for help getting many city services they pay for with their taxes.
Legislative records, available through the online legislative information center maintained by the City Clerk’s office, show how the system works. From May 2011, when Emanuel was inaugurated, through the end of 2018:
- More than 75,000 proposed ordinances and orders were introduced to the council, an average of about 800 a month. Ordinances are local laws, while orders are binding dictates to other city departments.
- The council passed more than 90 percent of them.
- Most of the introduced ordinances pertained to single addresses or blocks, such as more than 8,800 ordinances authorizing specific sidewalk cafe permits and 3,500 for particular loading zones.
- In contrast, less than 10 percent of ordinances pertained to city budgets, taxes, contracts or citywide laws.
- The most active and powerful citywide legislator was the city’s top executive, Emanuel. He served as the chief sponsor of more citywide ordinances (about 2,700) than all the aldermen combined (about 2,100).
A spokeswoman for the mayor declined to comment. Aldermen, who are paid between $108,000 and $120,000 a year, say they’re doing the job residents demand of them.
“People think we have control over everything,” said Ald. Roderick Sawyer, chairman of the council’s Black Caucus and alderman of the 6th Ward on the South Side.
One morning last month, Sawyer and his chief of staff, Winston McGill, drove around the ward checking on trouble spots and constituent issues, from illegal dumping to problem businesses to parking concerns.
Sawyer pulled over next to a church on 71st Street and Union Avenue in the Englewood neighborhood. One of the church’s leaders had called his office to complain that a no-parking sign had just been posted on a stretch of the street where members had parked on Sundays for years. After taking a look, Sawyer didn’t see the need for the restriction. The sign was later removed.
A few minutes later, they stopped on the 6600 block of South Harvard Avenue. McGill noted that only a couple of cars were parked on the street at that time of day, yet some residents had asked to restrict the block to permit-only parking.
Sawyer was skeptical. He shook his head and laughed. “You see all the stuff we deal with as aldermen? You have to manage all these egos.”
Joe Moore, alderman of the far North Side’s 49th Ward since 1991, said the system helps residents get access to city services.
“We’ve always kind of done it this way,” Moore said. “You make us full-time legislators and we lose that hands-on approach. A little decentralization is not a bad thing. At a time people [when] feel very disengaged from politics and government, this grassroots style of governing does have its benefits.”
On a recent afternoon, Moore met with police leaders at the 24th District station to talk about several blocks in Rogers Park with safety issues. Back at his office, Moore sat down with a former neighborhood resident who asked for help with an area storage facility where his musical equipment had been stolen. Then residents of a nearby apartment building for seniors came in to talk with the alderman and an official from the Chicago Housing Authority about its plans for the property.
Aldermen do propose important legislation, Moore noted, such as an ordinance passed in 2015 that set aside $5.5 million to pay reparations to victims of police torture.
But since aldermen serve primarily as ward housekeepers, the pipeline of legislation at City Hall is cluttered with ordinances for permits and other single-address regulations.
Committee chairs and aldermen of downtown and North Side wards with busy commercial areas introduce the most legislation. They also tend to receive steady campaign contributions, including from people and businesses that need their help.
From 2011 through 2018, Brendan Reilly, alderman of downtown’s 42nd Ward, ranked first in sponsoring legislation. He introduced more than 8,500 ordinances; all but about 100 involved permits, traffic and other local matters.
Reilly said his office has to review so many permits and ordinances that he raised campaign funds to hire five extra staff members in addition to the three already paid for by the city budget.
That’s not an ideal situation, since it means privately paid workers are doing public work. In 2016, an aide paid out of Reilly’s campaign funds resigned after media reports revealed that her consulting firm had also lobbied for developers. Reilly said none of that work involved projects in the 42nd Ward.
Though his office speeds through “99 percent” of permit applications and renewals, the other 1 percent require a closer look, perhaps because the applicants haven’t complied with the terms of their permit, or they haven’t been good neighbors, he said.
Reilly said he’s all for streamlining permit renewals or taking some of the administrative work out of aldermen’s offices.
“But there would be pushback from residents,” Reilly said. “Just short of blaming aldermen for the weather, we’re expected to be accountable for everything else in the ward.”
While aldermen are focused on ward issues, Chicago mayors have seized control of the legislative and oversight process at City Hall.
As in Congress and other lawmaking bodies, legislation introduced to the City Council is typically assigned to a committee before it goes before the whole. The council has 16 committees, covering areas from aviation to zoning. Under the council’s own rules, aldermen are supposed to determine their own committee assignments and leadership.
But that’s not how it works. Dating back at least to the tenure of Mayor Richard J. Daley from 1955 to 1976, the mayor has taken control of picking committee chairs and assignments.
First-term Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa said Burke asked him and other freshmen to fill out a form listing their committee preferences during an orientation session the council dean led in 2015. Ramirez-Rosa, alderman of the Logan Square-based 35th Ward, didn’t get any of his picks.
Instead, Ramirez-Rosa ended up on committees that rarely meet, like Health and Environmental Protection, and some that do little but sign off on ward-level legislation, like Pedestrian and Traffic Safety.
“All we’re doing is rubber-stamping what colleagues have put together,” he said.
In contrast, Moore serves on the powerful Finance and Budget committees. For 20 years, when he regularly criticized former Mayor Richard M. Daley, Moore was largely shut out of power. But after he allied himself with Emanuel in 2011, the mayor picked him to lead the Human Relations Committee. Four years ago, Moore received a promotion of sorts by being named chair of the Housing Committee, which has a larger staff and budget.
By deferring to the mayor to pick committee chairs, aldermen have made the process of picking their leaders easier, Moore joked. “You only had to lobby one person instead of the whole council,” he said.
Ald. George Cardenas of the 12th Ward, chair of the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection, has helped pass ordinances pushed by Emanuel to crack down on illegal dumping and the use of dangerous chemicals in dry cleaning.
But Emanuel has repeatedly nixed proposals from Cardenas. Among them: a 2012 resolution calling for hearings on the health impacts of sugary beverages and the possibility of taxing them. Cardenas said he just wanted to start a conversation, given the nation’s obesity epidemic.
Aides to the mayor told him not to hold the hearings, Cardenas said. “The administration didn’t think it was the right time,” he said, especially since the soft drink industry was against it.
Instead, a few months later, in November 2012, Emanuel announced that the Coca-Cola Foundation would donate $3 million to fund health programs in the city. Subsequent donations from Coca-Cola have funded improvements in city parks.
Cardenas said aldermen need to pick their own committee chairs, perhaps based on seniority, to allow them to be more independent.
“For the last five mayors, the mayor handled it because the aldermen gave it away,” he said.
One of the most powerful council posts is the chair of the Committee on Committees, Rules and Ethics. Under council rules, the chair has the power to decide where to send each piece of introduced legislation. In 2013, Emanuel chose Michelle Harris, alderman of the South Side’s 8th Ward, for the job.
Since then, Harris has held dozens of pieces of legislation in the committee without bringing them up for a vote, including proposals for ethics training for city contractors; additional oversight of the city’s investments; and a plan to livestream committee hearings.
“Michelle Harris is [Emanuel’s] workhorse to stop legislation,” Waguespack said. “It boils down to her doing the bidding of the mayor, and the mayor having a policy that’s essentially, kill anything that would challenge his or Burke’s authority.”
Asked about getting direction from the mayor, Harris said she sometimes acts as a “go between” during negotiations with aldermen. But she said the fate of legislation depends on whether supporters can show her they have the votes before their public meetings. Harris noted that under council rules, aldermen can undertake a multi-step process to force legislation out of a committee if 26 of them back it.
Still, she said, she prefers an “informal” approach to determining when legislation has support. “I’d rather sit down and talk about it,” she said.
Other aldermen say taxpayers deserve a more open process.
“It would seem to me that she supports an approach to government that’s done in a back room,” 45th Ward Ald. John Arena said. “There’s an attitude among some that you only put it forward in committee if it’s going to pass. Whereas we think you put forward ideas and you discuss them, and it might take two meetings to pass because the whole point is to go over issues.”
Both the size and priorities of Chicago’s City Council are unusual. New York City has a 51-member council — the only one from a major city that’s comparable in size to Chicago’s. New York also has more than three times the population. While its council members provide constituent services, they spend considerable time and political capital on oversight of the mayor and city departments, said Bruce Berg, a political science professor at Fordham University. For example, the New York City Council holds budget hearings every six months that often result in significant changes.
“In that way, they’re almost an equal partner to the mayor,” Berg said. Since New York council members are limited to two consecutive four-year terms, “it gives members the incentive to make a splash while they’re there.”
In Chicago, Budget Committee chair Ald. Carrie Austin oversees two weeks of public hearings each year on the budgets proposed by the mayor. For three decades, the mayors’ budgets have passed the council overwhelmingly, usually with only minor tweaks.
But Austin said aldermen do vet the mayor’s budgets and other legislation, though it usually happens in closed-door meetings.
“By the time it goes to the committee or the council, we’ve worked out the kinks,” Austin said.
Aldermen know that their work in the council is not their top priority, added Austin, who has represented the 34th Ward on the far South Side since 1994, when Daley appointed her to finish the term of her late husband.
“The things we do down here, they’re important,” Austin said, “but not as important as what’s going on in the ward."
ProPublica Illinois is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. Sign up for The ProPublica Illinois newsletter for weekly updates.
<span data-mce-type="bookmark" style="display: inline-block; width: 0px; overflow: hidden; line-height: 0;" class="mce_SELRES_start">
ProPublica Illinois reporter Mick Dumke looks at the state’s political issues and personalities in this occasional column.
From the day Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot and killed Laquan McDonald in 2014, city officials have worked to keep records from the shooting secret.
Yet when journalists and other citizens sought help from the office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan — which is responsible for interpreting and enforcing the state’s Freedom of Information Act — the agency did little to ensure the materials were released to the public.
Over the last four years, reporters and citizen activists have filed at least 10 appeals with the attorney general’s office after Chicago officials blocked their requests for video, police reports, emails and other materials tied to the shooting, according to documents maintained by the office.
But most of the McDonald-related appeals dragged on for months or years — including one filed in 2015 that wasn’t closed until this fall — before the attorney general’s office took action. When it did, the city repeatedly ignored its decisions and resisted producing any records.
Together, the cases expose critical flaws in the Illinois Freedom of Information Act and its enforcement under Madigan, who helped write the current version of the law. She is leaving office in January after 16 years. Her successor, Kwame Raoul, has vowed to make FOIA enforcement a priority.
Maura Possley, a spokeswoman for Madigan, blamed “government offices that steadfastly refuse to follow FOIA” for blocking the release of records and hampering the public access counselor. The PAC is the office Madigan and her staff launched in 2010 to handle open-government cases.
“Under the statute, the goal of the Public Access Counselor is to help resolve disputes as an alternative to court, not to litigate every matter,” Possley wrote in a statement. “In the matter involving the Laquan McDonald shooting, it is clear that the Chicago Police Department was not going to release information without a court order.”
A spokesman for the city’s Law Department said the city receives thousands of FOIA requests a year and works to provide public records “in a timely manner.”
“As part of state law, requesters have several options if they feel their response should include additional or unredacted records, and the city works to resolve these differences as quickly as possible,” the spokesman, Bill McCaffrey, wrote in a statement.
McDonald’s killing highlighted the crucial importance of opening government records to the public. In November 2015, a judge ordered the release of the now-infamous video showing Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times as the teen appeared to be walking away — contradicting what police reported.
That set off a chain of events leading to Van Dyke’s conviction this year of second-degree murder, the recent trial of three other officers for conspiring to cover for him and the announcement by Mayor Rahm Emanuel that he wouldn’t run for re-election. When the Trump administration refused to push for reforms to the Chicago Police Department, Madigan’s office sued to make sure the plan was backed by a federal court order.
But that all happened despite the attorney general’s FOIA enforcement, not because of it. In fact, the office’s FOIA decisions may have ended up delaying justice in the McDonald shooting and costing taxpayers money.
1. The attorney general’s office rejected some FOIA appeals because of missed deadlines.
In January 2015, a producer for MSNBC submitted a FOIA request to the Chicago Police Department for copies of reports from the shooting and video captured by police car dashboard cameras. After a month, the department denied the request. Releasing the video could harm ongoing investigations into the shooting, police officials argued, and therefore the Freedom of Information Act entitled the department to keep it secret.
That April, a lawyer for NBCUniversal, the parent company of MSNBC, appealed to the PAC.
“The CPD has failed to provide any factual basis or explanation for its nondisclosure,” the NBC lawyer wrote.
The PAC is barraged with appeals of FOIA requests denied or ignored by the Police Department — more than 2,500 since 2010, ProPublica Illinois found in an investigation published in October. Only the Illinois Department of Corrections, inundated with requests from inmates, accounts for more.
On May 6, 2015, the PAC informed NBC that the network had missed a deadline to file its appeal within 60 days of being denied. As is required under the law, the case was closed.
2. The attorney general’s office then missed its own deadlines and allowed government bodies to ignore the law.
By then, other journalists were trying to get copies of the dashcam video, especially after city officials discussed it before the City Council signed off on a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family.
In May 2015, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal requested the video and reports from the shooting. Police officials waited six days to respond even though the denial letter was almost identical to those sent to MSNBC and others seeking the records.
That June, a lawyer for the Journal asked the PAC for a review.
“Public scrutiny of such records is essential to maintaining confidence in the administration of justice,” attorney Jacob Goldstein wrote.
Goldstein had met the deadline for filing an appeal. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the PAC then had 60 days to issue a binding opinion, a ruling that all parties would have to follow unless they challenged it in court.
But the office showed little urgency. While requesters face a firm deadline for filing appeals, the law gives the PAC discretion in deciding how long to give government bodies to respond. Officials in the attorney general’s office say the law could be strengthened, though in this and many other cases, they chose to wait months for replies.
“CPD has not responded, and currently has a backlog of requests due to staffing issues,” an attorney in the PAC’s office wrote to Goldstein in July 2015. “I have requested that they expedite this response, and it will be forwarded to you upon receipt.”
Goldstein noted that the Police Department could be found in violation of FOIA if it failed to respond. The attorney in the PAC’s office didn’t reply.
In the meantime, others kept pushing for copies of the shooting video. MSNBC filed a new request with the Police Department and, after it was denied, appealed to the PAC. The case stalled just as the Journal’s did.
The Police Department also denied a request for the video from independent journalist Brandon Smith and activist William Calloway. Instead of seeking a review from the PAC, Smith hired attorney Matt Topic and sued the department. Smith said he was able to file the lawsuit because he didn’t have to pay Topic up front; requesters can collect attorneys’ fees from government bodies found to have violated FOIA.
Topic has worked with ProPublica Illinois and many other news organizations on FOIA cases.
“I had already looked into the PAC and realized it was not as effectual as I needed to get stories out,” Smith said in an an interview.
Smith’s lawsuit attracted widespread media coverage; a judicial ruling was scheduled for November 2015.
Then, on Nov. 6, with the court hearing imminent, the PAC finally weighed in: The Police Department had improperly denied the Journal’s FOIA request. Plus, it had failed to cooperate with the PAC’s review, a point the Journal’s lawyer had made months earlier. Officials in the attorney general’s office say the timing of the decision had nothing to do with the court case.
The PAC urged the department to release the dashcam video and police reports. But after the PAC had missed the deadline for a binding order, the opinion was merely advisory.
That outcome wasn’t unusual. The PAC has issued binding opinions in less than half of one percent of the appeals it’s reviewed. And many of the PAC’s advisory opinions are simply ignored by government bodies — including, in this case, the Police Department.
The department couldn’t ignore the Nov. 19 ruling from Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama, who ordered the department to release the dashcam video. The judge’s decision didn’t mention the opinion from the attorney general’s office.
The Journal, MSNBC and other media organizations received copies of the video when the city released it a few days later. Still, it was this October, almost three years later, when the PAC followed up with MSNBC about its second, long-stalled appeal, records show. A lawyer for the network confirmed that it already had the video, and the case was officially closed.
3. The attorney general’s office repeatedly declined to use its full authority to order the release of public records.
After the release of the video, the city received a flurry of new FOIA requests related to the shooting. On New Year’s Eve, when audiences are often tuned out, the city released hundreds of pages of emails about the McDonald shooting. Many exchanges among top city officials were blacked out. In January 2016, NBC 5 producer and investigator Don Moseley asked the PAC to review the redactions in just one of the emails, arguing that “the public has an inherent right to know what senior officials in the office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel knew at the time regarding video of a fatal police shooting.”
The PAC sided with Moseley that spring and urged the city to turn over an unredacted copy of the email. But it was only an advisory opinion, and weeks passed before Moseley and his colleague, reporter Carol Marin, finally saw a full copy of the email.
It left them wondering why the city had redacted it in the first place. The message was a recitation of facts, including the name of the attorney hired by McDonald’s family, but it included nothing damning, revealing or even newsworthy.
“We looked at it and said, ‘Why would you fight that one?’” Marin said. “It was wallpaper.”
4. When the attorney general’s office did issue a binding opinion, it was challenged in court.
In January 2016, a producer for CNN sent the Police Department a FOIA request for emails about the shooting from Van Dyke, his partner and other officers. In addition to official police emails, CNN sought messages from private email accounts.
That summer, after CNN appealed to the PAC, police officials conceded that they hadn’t attempted to look through the personal email accounts of Van Dyke or the other officers. They argued they shouldn’t have to, since those messages weren’t public records.
The PAC disagreed. In August 2016, the office issued a binding opinion in CNN’s favor, ruling that emails on personal accounts that pertain to public business are public. The Police Department was ordered to search the officers’ personal email accounts.
Instead, the city sued — and, a year later, in September 2017, lost.
“Government operations in a free society must not be shrouded in secrecy,” Cook County Judge Pamela McLean Meyerson wrote in her ruling.
Yet CNN never received the emails at the center of the battle. Last March, CNN went back to court to force the city to comply with the judge’s order. But the city argued that all it could do was ask the officers to have their personal email accounts searched. Either individually or through attorneys, each officer either refused, denied having any relevant messages or simply ignored the request.
5. As the city continues to block many FOIA requests, some journalists are bypassing the attorney general’s office and turning to the courts — which costs taxpayers money.
This month, Lucy Parsons Labs, a nonprofit focused on police accountability and transparency, sued the Chicago mayor’s office for refusing to release a copy of its plan to respond to potential protests after the Van Dyke verdict.
Since 2013, as more journalists have turned to the courts for help, the city has paid more than $1 million in attorneys’ fees in FOIA cases.
Freddy Martinez, the Lucy Parsons director, says he sees little point in turning to the attorney general’s office because the process takes too long and often doesn’t produce records.
“Going to the PAC is just not an option for us anymore,” he said. “Our main strategy is always to sue for records. And it’s a shame because it costs taxpayers money.”
ProPublica Illinois reporter Mick Dumke looks at the state’s political issues and personalities in this occasional column.
The official slogan of the state of Illinois remains “Land of Lincoln,” and lots of Republicans still live here. But it’s no longer the land of his political party. The GOP isn’t winning many elections, which is generally considered the purpose of a political party.
And that brings us to the bluebath that happened this week, when Illinois Democrats seized two congressional seats that for decades had been held by Republicans, ousted one-term Gov. Bruce Rauner, easily held onto every other statewide office, solidified control of the General Assembly and toppled the Cook County commissioner who chairs the state GOP.
In short, it wasn’t a great night here for the Republicans.
“The land of Lincoln and Barack Obama,” J.B. Pritzker called the state during his speech after beating Rauner. He didn’t need to point out that Obama is a fellow Democrat.
Here are a few observations and thoughts on what happened and what might happen next:
Rauner didn’t lose all his friends — but he certainly didn’t make enough new ones.
Four years ago, voters were weary of state leaders’ lack of fiscal discipline — high taxes and billions of dollars of debt will do that — and Gov. Pat Quinn didn’t inspire confidence. Rauner, a millionaire businessman, promised to fix the government and stand up to Michael Madigan, the state House speaker, Democratic Party chair and most powerful figure in state government.
Rauner received about 1.8 million votes to 1.7 million for Quinn, who didn’t concede until the day after the election.
After four years of bitter feuding with Madigan, including a two-year budget impasse, Rauner still received more than 1.7 million votes Tuesday. Unfortunately for him, about 2.4 million people voted for Pritzker.
Emblematic was DuPage County, a GOP stronghold. In 2014, Rauner cleaned up there with 61 percent of the vote. This time, though he received close to the same number of actual votes, he lost the county to Pritzker.
Pritzker gave out more goodies than Rauner.
In 2014, Rauner didn’t just win his party’s nomination — he all but purchased it, just as he’d bought and sold businesses when he was leading a private equity firm. In the two years leading to his election as governor, Rauner poured about $28 million of his personal wealth into his campaign fund, records show. At the same time, Rauner, his campaign, and his wife, Diana, gave more than $9 million to other GOP candidates and committees across Illinois.
As he moved toward his re-election bid, Rauner was even more generous, putting $50 million into his campaign fund and distributing almost $16 million to other Republicans.
The strategy, and the money, were so convincing that Pritzker decided to do the same thing, but on a scale that made Rauner’s giving look chintzy by comparison. Pritzker pumped more than $171 million of his own money into his campaign fund, and he handed out about $24 million to other Democratic committees and candidates, including the DuPage County Democratic Central Committee.
Now Democrats won’t have Rauner to kick around any more.
As the state budget crisis stretched more than two years, Democrats blamed Rauner, and much of the public sided with them. Rauner conceded defeat Tuesday less than an hour after the polls closed, ending the contentious, expensive campaign so suddenly that some of the governor’s critics seemed unprepared to talk about what they’ll do once he’s out of the way.
Thirty minutes after the race was called, state Comptroller Susana Mendoza took the stage at Pritzker’s election night gathering and introduced herself as “your truth-telling fiscal watchdog who was not afraid to stand up to the biggest bully in this state, Bruce Rauner!” Mendoza, who is weighing a run for mayor of Chicago, then celebrated Rauner’s defeat by shouting, “You’re fired!” — a line long associated with Donald Trump’s days on the reality show “The Apprentice.”
The Democrats still weren’t done ripping on Rauner. An hour after he conceded, Sen. Richard Durbin ridiculed the governor for riding his motorcycle around the state while wearing a leather vest. Downstaters, he said, “can spot a phony a mile away.”
Then, on Wednesday, Madigan took a shot at Rauner in a press release, which was especially striking because he rarely issues statements or otherwise communicates with the public. “Last night’s election results definitively proved that the Rauner Republican playbook of attempting to make the entire 2018 election a referendum on Speaker Madigan, to distract from Republicans’ record, is a failure,” the release said.
Instead, the Democrats managed to turn the elections into a referendum on Rauner and Trump. Voters now hope the Democrats will be half as good at addressing the state’s budget and debt problems as they were at mocking the governor.
Now Republicans won’t have Rauner to kick around any more.
Democrats disliked Rauner from the beginning, but for many conservative Republicans it took a couple of years. After he signed legislation expanding access to abortion and protections for undocumented immigrants, the right wing of the party launched its own attacks. To critics like state Rep. Jeanne Ives, Rauner had abandoned the party’s base, proving once again that the Democrats will always win if Republicans “surrender” and move to the center.
Still, Ives came up short when she challenged Rauner in the GOP primary. So have most of the conservative candidates backed by her allies and funders. For example, of the top 20 candidates supported this election cycle by the Liberty Principles political action committee, run by Ives ally Dan Proft, 16 lost. Among them: state Rep. Peter Breen, the GOP floor leader in the state House, who represents a district in DuPage County.
The election is over. The next elections have begun.
Now in power, Democrats will work to move the state to the left.
“Are you ready to fight for Illinois?” Pritzker said during his victory speech, and his supporters shouted that they were.
But as the GOP regroups, Ives and her allies are funded by their own really rich guys, and they’re eager to keep pushing the party and the land of Lincoln to the right.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel isn’t running for re-election in February, and 17 would-be successors, give or take a few, are hoping to get on the ballot. All 50 seats in the City Council are also up for election. Voters were tuned in even before the ballots were counted Tuesday.
“They’re glad about the mayor’s race,” said Barbara Kendricks, who was talking with voters and handing out flyers Tuesday outside a polling place in the South Side Kenwood neighborhood. “The mayor, we want him out.”
Since he first entered politics as a candidate five years ago, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has pledged his commitment to open government.
As he put it during a debate last week with challenger J.B. Pritzker before the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board: “Transparency is great.”
As he fights for re-election, making the declaration is a great move on Rauner’s part — and an easy one. Voters are demanding more and more information about what their governments are doing with their tax money, and every candidate at every level is wise to speak in favor of sharing it with them.
But what Rauner means when he vows to be transparent isn’t so clear, given his administration’s habit of fighting against the release of information. The governor’s office won’t even disclose how often it blocks the release of records sought by the public.
From January 2017 through this June, the governor’s office received more than 500 requests for records under the state Freedom of Information Act, according to a log released to me in response to a FOIA request. The log shows the office received requests from journalists, unions, businesses and independent citizens who wanted copies of the everything from Rauner’s schedule to emails from first lady Diana Rauner.
Yet the governor’s office wouldn’t provide me records showing whether it granted or denied the requests, arguing it wasn’t obligated to under the law.
“Please also be advised that the Governor’s Office is not required to answer questions or generate new records in response to a FOIA request,” one of the governor’s attorneys wrote in a letter.
In other words, Rauner’s lawyer was arguing that his office didn’t have to reveal how it responded to FOIA requests because it doesn’t have those records on hand. That means the governor’s office kept a detailed log of every FOIA request it received, who made it, what it was for and when a response was due — but claimed it didn’t track whether the office ever provided the information or complied with the law.
Either the office isn’t being transparent or it’s not keeping good records.
Even so, the response to my request was more forthcoming than what another Chicagoan, Sarah Jackson, got last year when she asked the governor’s office for a FOIA log: nothing at all. The office never responded to her, according to a summary of the case by the office of Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s public access counselor, which handles FOIA disputes.
When Rauner’s office didn’t acknowledge her request within two weeks, Jackson notified the PAC, which tried to find out what had happened. But Rauner’s office didn’t respond to those inquiries either. In December, the PAC issued a binding opinion ordering Rauner’s office to produce the log.
Jackson’s FOIA request was one of more than 40 appealed to the PAC from January 2017 through this June after Rauner’s office denied them, records from the attorney general show. In addition to Jackson’s case, the PAC ruled three other times that the governor’s office had violated FOIA. On at least 16 other occasions, the governor’s office responded or reached an agreement with the requester after the PAC got involved. Most of the other cases were closed for administrative reasons. The PAC determined Rauner’s office had acted properly in just one of the disputes.
As I found in a recent investigation, the PAC’s office is backlogged with FOIA appeals that often take months or even years to resolve. One of the reasons it gets so many cases is that public bodies around the state resist such requests.
Ann Spillane, the attorney general’s chief of staff, said the obfuscation starts with Rauner.
“We have a governor of Illinois who actively tries to undermine the FOIA,” she said.
But Patty Schuh, a spokeswoman for Rauner, said his administration remains committed to transparency and devotes considerable resources to complying with the law.
“Our teams spend hundreds of hours each week reviewing documents to respond to FOIA requests as completely as possible and in a timely manner,” she wrote in an email. “We’ve produced hundreds of thousands of pages of responsive documents. In addition, the volume produced by individual state agencies under the Administration could number in the millions.”
Schuh described an office barraged with FOIA requests, including many that take long hours to process. She said the governor would be willing to work on “improvements” to the law, which was first passed in the 1980s.
“The law doesn’t adequately account for the current reality that some government bodies, including our office, add hundreds of thousands of emails each year to their records, if not millions,” Schuh said.
But Rauner wasn’t very sympathetic to the burden the law placed on his predecessor, Pat Quinn, portraying him four years ago as a product of the secretive Democratic machine. He promised to bring a new level of openness to state government if elected.
After taking office in 2015, though, Rauner’s administration began arguing that it was exempt from many FOIA requests, including for basic records such as his daily meeting schedules. In September of that year, the PAC ruled against the governor, concluding his calendars were indeed public records.
His office then stopped naming the people he met with, instead using only their initials on the calendars.
Rauner also repeatedly fought to keep state officials’ emails secret. Last week, the PAC issued another binding opinion that said the emails are public records and releasing them doesn’t place an undue burden on the office.
Much as Rauner once went after Quinn, Pritzker has spent the last year hammering Rauner for concealing key decisions and scandals within his administration.
During the Sun-Times debate, for example, Pritzker accused Rauner of flouting FOIA by redacting emails that reporters sought while investigating a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at the Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy.
“They were blacked out because he didn’t want to let people know what was going on, which was an effort to cover their butts, to make sure that they weren’t held accountable,” Pritzker charged.
Rauner denied any wrongdoing. Instead, he attacked Pritzker for not revealing details of his tax plan, and for getting his own tax breaks after removing toilets at his Gold Coast mansion.
The governor had a point: Neither move was a model of transparency.
Jason Rubin, a spokesman for Pritzker, told me the Democrat will “ensure his administration works in good faith to improve public access to information across all executive agencies,” such as making more data and records available, presumably without the need for FOIA requests. In contrast, Rubin said, “Bruce Rauner has routinely shirked ethics and transparency as governor.”
Yet this week the rivals revealed similar notions about openness, and especially its limits. Each released tax records showing more than $50 million in income last year. Each declined to let the public see schedules or attachments showing deductions and other financial details, though news reports have found they each have networks of investments that extend to offshore tax shelters.
Some claims of transparency are easy to see through.
When Larry Young started requesting records from police, he just wanted to find out what had happened to his daughter, Molly.
More than six years after the 21-year-old was found shot to death in her ex-boyfriend’s Carbondale apartment, Young is still fighting law enforcement agencies for records under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
Young’s battle has become a long, often painful example of both the promise and weakness of government-transparency laws in Illinois, including an overwhelmed and inconsistent enforcement system overseen by outgoing Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
Police and other government agencies have offered a series of reasons why Young can’t see certain records from the investigations into Molly’s death. At times they’ve claimed the information should remain under wraps to protect the privacy of his daughter, even though she’s dead and he’s the executor of her estate. On other occasions they’ve simply ignored his requests and disregarded four different rulings from the attorney general’s office.
In 2009, Madigan and state legislators crafted a new law they promised would help citizens like Young by improving access to government records and proceedings. Under one of its key provisions, the attorney general’s office was given authority to interpret and enforce the state Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts. Since then, thousands of citizens, mostly individuals but also journalists and businesses, have appealed for help from the office’s public access counselor, known as the PAC. As she prepares to leave office after 16 years, Madigan has touted her work in promoting transparency as one of her signature achievements.
Often, though, the public still gets shut out. Government bodies around the state routinely ignore or misinterpret the FOIA and OMA, according to a ProPublica Illinois analysis of the nearly 30,000 appeals the PAC has received.
The PAC’s staff of more than a dozen attorneys struggles to wade through the cases, regularly taking months or even years to resolve them. When it does rule, it seldom uses its full authority to order government agencies to comply with the laws. And in the rare cases when it does, the office’s orders are sometimes blown off. Violators face few consequences.
A number of people who turned to Madigan’s office for help say it is too slow, cautious and unpredictable. That sends the message that public agencies can get away with breaking the transparency laws.
“Here’s what they need to do: Pull the plug on the PAC’s office,” said Bruce Rushton, a staff writer for the Illinois Times newspaper who has written about delays and inaction from the office. Rushton argued that the attorney general’s office is too politicized to oversee disputes involving other politicians and government bodies, including state agencies it’s charged with representing in court.
“Only a fool would put an elected official in Illinois in charge of riding herd on other elected officials,” Rushton said. “But that’s what we’ve done.”
Madigan was not available for an interview, according to a spokeswoman. But other officials in her office said the PAC has helped thousands of people access government information while leading a shift in the culture of the state toward more transparency.
“We started from scratch and created this, and I think we really do help people every day,” said Ann Spillane, the attorney general’s chief of staff.
“We have areas where we need to improve,” she acknowledged. But in addition to its rulings, Spillane stressed that the office provides education to the public on open-government laws, including through a hotline. “We’re one of the rare places in government where you can pick up the phone and talk to a lawyer.”
Spillane added that the office could be more efficient if compliance with the open-government laws was a higher priority for officials around the state, starting with the governor.
“Since I’ve been around, we’ve never had a governor who directed their staff at all levels to comply with FOIA,” she said.
The Freedom of Information Act promises that “all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government.” Under FOIA, citizens are allowed to request and obtain copies of records generated by local and state government agencies. Journalists and watchdog groups make regular FOIA requests, but so do law firms, nonprofits and unaffiliated residents who want or need information.
But the law has limits that are not always defined clearly. Personal or private information, such as Social Security and phone numbers, are exempt. So are records that would interfere with a pending law enforcement investigation, reveal terrorism prevention plans or disclose trade secrets.
If a government body rejects a FOIA request — or doesn’t respond within five business days — the requester can ask the public access counselor to review the case. Eventually it may issue a ruling — either a “determination,” which is advisory, or a “binding opinion,” which orders a resolution, usually in favor of the requester.
Similarly, citizens can ask the PAC to review whether government bodies have violated the Open Meetings Act, which mandates that public business be conducted in the open except in certain circumstances, such as disciplinary proceedings for employees.
Open-government laws, and enforcement of them, vary widely by state. In some, citizens can only appeal FOIA denials to officials at the same public agencies that rejected their requests in the first place. In other states, separate offices or committees hear appeals and have the authority to order remedies. Ideally, such offices would be separate from other government agencies and free from interference from elected officials, advocates for transparency say.
“I think it’s incredibly important for the body or entity deciding these administrative appeals to be independent in as many ways as possible,” said Adam Marshall, a staff attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Part of the reason we have a separate branch of government for the judiciary is the appeals process.”
Such enforcement entities should also have adequate resources. “You can have a totally independent body, but if you starve them by limiting their budgets, they won’t be able to do their work,” he said.
Critics of the system in Illinois say it suffers from both problems.
Sarah Pratt, who has served as the public access counselor since 2013, said the office’s decisions are never based on politics but on the law.
“Frankly, I’ve never, in more than 25 years in this office, and certainly not in the last eight years, done anything or been advised to do anything for political reasons,” she said. “As far as us choosing opinions to write based on politics, it just doesn’t happen.”
From 2010 through mid-August 2018, the PAC received more than 28,000 requests to review potential violations of the two transparency laws. The vast majority — 93 percent — involved FOIA. More than 80 percent of the requests came from individual citizens, while the rest came from the media, businesses and other government bodies.
As of August, the PAC had closed about 26,000 of the cases, and in more than half, it ruled against the requester or closed the case for technical reasons. In contrast, about a third of the cases ended in favor of the citizen or organization seeking information or transparency.
In 38 percent of the cases, the PAC ruled against the requester, concluding the public body had acted properly in its response to FOIA or application of OMA.
An additional 18 percent of cases were closed because the PAC determined they didn’t comply with the rules for requesting a review — they weren’t filed within the 60-day deadline, for example.
In 9 percent of the cases, the request for review was withdrawn or the requester filed a lawsuit instead of waiting for an opinion.
In 28 percent, the cases were resolved or advanced without a formal ruling, usually because the public body responded when the PAC got involved.
The PAC issued formal opinions finding violations of FOIA or OMA in just 7 percent of cases.
While most FOIA and OMA reviews were closed within two months, more than 3,800 took the PAC longer than a year to resolve, including about 500 that went on for more than four years.
Officials in the attorney general’s office said they issue binding opinions on issues of broad public interest, and each one is researched to ensure it could withstand a court challenge.
“Our binding opinions in particular we’ve been exceedingly careful about,” Spillane said. “We’ve only been overturned once. We thought it would be a devastating blow to our credibility if we didn’t have success with the courts.”
Spillane and Pratt said opinions aren’t driven by who makes the request. But the ProPublica Illinois review found the PAC tends to weigh in most strongly on cases involving members of the media. Individual journalists and news organizations were involved in less than 10 percent of all the cases appealed to the PAC but almost half of those resolved with a binding opinion.
The PAC also uses binding opinions to resolve some of the most obvious violations of the transparency laws — a sign that the office often goes after low-hanging fruit, but also that government bodies around Illinois routinely ignore or misinterpret even basic open-government rules. For example, the most common violation the PAC found in its binding opinions was that agencies simply didn’t respond to a FOIA request within five business days, if they responded at all.
Spillane said the office has “struggled” to decide the best way to deal with public agencies that ignore requests or PAC opinions, opting in most cases for the “ask again and again and again” approach. But the office has started to respond more forcefully with binding opinions, she said.
“It will be something the bureau does more going forward,” she said.
The PAC’s first binding opinion, in 2010, centered on basic obligations of public bodies to provide records under FOIA, and it illustrated the absurd arguments some use to thwart FOIA requesters.
Edward Fleck, a former village trustee in Wapella, a small community south of Bloomington, filed a FOIA with the village government for copies of his own water meter readings. The village denied his request, telling Fleck that he could come to the village hall to look at the documents but that it wouldn’t provide him with copies.
Fleck said the denial was part of a deliberate attempt by the village leadership at the time to keep him and other residents from getting information about its spending and operations. In response, he and a couple other residents joined forces to submit hundreds of FOIAs.
“At one point they got a new copier, but we could not get how much it cost,” Fleck said.
So he submitted a FOIA request for a copy of the instruction manual.
“For a while we were required to go up to the village board and we had an hour to go through records, and they might not be the records we asked for,” he said. On other occasions, he was allowed to use the copier, but only with yellow paper that made the records hard to read.
Fleck appealed to the PAC, which ruled that the village violated FOIA by not providing copies of public records and must begin to do so.
Even then, Fleck said, it was “several months” before he received copies of his water meter readings. Eventually, he and other residents met with village officials in the public access counselor’s office in Springfield, and over time the information-sharing process improved. But Fleck felt the PAC could have been more aggressive in enforcing the laws.
“Generally, if someone is making a FOIA request there’s a legitimate reason for it,” he said. “Springfield needs to take little towns and individuals more seriously than they do. We don’t have lawyers pleading our case. We do it ourselves.”
Though fewer than 10 percent of appeals to the PAC involved the Open Meetings Act, more than 20 percent of its binding opinions did. The cases show how government agencies repeatedly break the law in meeting behind closed doors.
In the summer of 2017, Pastor Marvin Hightower asked the PAC to determine whether the village board in Mapleton, a small town outside of Peoria, had violated the act when it went into closed session to discuss offensive comments by a trustee.
At a meeting earlier in the year, the trustee shared her view that “we have too many colored people coming into town” to play basketball at a local community center, according to the Peoria Journal Star.
As president of the Peoria branch of the NAACP, Hightower heard about the remarks and decided to go to the next board meeting, when other trustees put an item on the agenda to address the issue.
“With everything at the time that was going on in the country, we felt we couldn’t let that continue and fester here,” Hightower said.
After the board went behind closed doors to discuss the trustee’s comments, Hightower notified the PAC. It agreed that the Mapleton village board had violated the Open Meetings Act and ordered the trustees to comply with the law in the future. At the PAC’s direction, the board also provided a recording of its closed session to Hightower.
Some states don’t have any enforcement or appeals system at all, and the lone option for citizens seeking redress for denied records or closed meetings is to file a lawsuit.
Even with the PAC in place, that’s an approach favored by many reporters, activists and lawyers in Illinois, who say they can’t count on the attorney general’s office to deliver timely opinions. They point to the fight to get the city of Chicago to produce records related to the 2014 shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald by police officer Jason Van Dyke. Video of the shooting was only released after FOIA requesters went to court; the video eventually led to Van Dyke’s conviction for second-degree murder and aggravated battery.
Candidates to replace Madigan, who is not running for re-election in November after four terms, said the office needs to step up enforcement. Both Republican Erika Harold and Democrat Kwame Raoul, who as a state senator helped write the law, promised to press the General Assembly for more money to add staff for the public access counselor’s work.
As Larry Young discovered, enforcement of the transparency laws, including the PAC’s decisions about when to use the weight of its authority with binding opinions or even subpoenas, can have serious consequences.
Around noon on March 24, 2012, Young got word that Molly had been found dead three hours earlier in her ex-boyfriend’s apartment in Carbondale, about 20 miles from Young’s home in Johnston City. He hurried to the Carbondale police station.
“I said, ‘I want to know the who, what, where, when and why,’” Young recalled. “I was mad and in shock.”
But no Carbondale officers would brief him on what had happened, he said. The state police had been called in because Molly’s ex-boyfriend was a Carbondale police dispatcher, creating a potential conflict for the local investigators, but the state authorities wouldn’t tell Young much either. No one was ever charged.
Over the next year, Young said, state and local police refused to share information about the case with him or other family members. He often learned details of the investigation from news stories. In February 2013, the Carbondale Times reported that the ex-boyfriend initially described Molly’s death as an overdose in a 911 call the morning of the incident, then told a dispatcher — someone he worked with — that she had committed suicide.
In April 2013, the Times reported that state police still considered their investigation open. That’s when Young, who said he had never filed an open records request, started using FOIA to seek information.
“I didn’t know how to write them,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about them.”
Young emailed the FOIA officer for the state police, seeking an update on the investigation.
“I have not been allowed to see any written police reports requested about my daughter’s suspicious death,” he wrote. “lf the investigation is ongoing please inform me as to what is going on to erase all doubt that this is not the code of silence in effect.”
The FOIA officer interpreted Young’s message as a formal request under the law. In May 2013, the state police provided some information but it was “heavily redacted,” Young said. The blacked out material even included half of a letter Young himself had written.
And the police still wouldn’t give Young an autopsy report, his daughter’s journals or a number of other records. So in January 2014, he sent another round of FOIA requests to state and Carbondale police, seeking investigative reports and video and audio recordings pertaining to Molly’s death.
Both the Carbondale and state police responded that they had already provided everything the previous year, even though they hadn’t.
Young appealed to the PAC. The back-and-forth dragged on for more than a year as the police departments offered shifting arguments for not releasing all the records.
It was June 2015 before the PAC formally sided with Young, noting that his daughter’s privacy didn’t need to be protected since she had died and he was in charge of her estate.
The state police were “directed” to provide the records to Young. But the ruling added that “the Public Access Counselor has determined that resolution of this matter does not require the issuance of a binding opinion.”
The PAC issued a similar nonbinding opinion for the dispute with the Carbondale police. But it wasn’t able to issue a stronger order, and Carbondale officials knew it. As a city attorney noted in a July 2015 letter, the PAC had missed its 60-day window for a binding opinion.
A nonbinding opinion, Young said, “isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.” The police refused to produce all the records from his daughter’s case. Young said he doesn’t understand why the PAC didn’t use its subpoena power to force the police to comply with the law.
Young sent his next FOIA to the state police in August 2015, seeking all the records related to his daughter’s death, including, specifically, crime scene and autopsy photographs. Once again the state police refused to provide him with everything, and once again he appealed to the PAC.
Finally, after another round of requests, the PAC issued a binding opinion in February 2016 that reiterated the points it had made in previous rulings. The state police were ordered to provide Young with copies of the photographs, and it did.
Later that year, the legislature passed an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act that increased potential court-imposed fines for agencies that don’t comply. Sparked by Young’s fight with police, the measure was called Molly’s Law and was signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner during a July ceremony with Young and others, clad in green Justice for Molly T-shirts, in attendance.
Young is not done; he still wants the records from the phones of his daughter and her ex-boyfriend. In another nonbinding ruling last year, the PAC concluded he had the right to them, but the state police say they can’t locate those records.
Young hopes the disclosures he has wrestled from police will lead to a re-examination of Molly’s death.
“The purpose of the FOIAs is to find the truth,” he said. Without FOIA requests, “It all would’ve been swept under the rug.”
ProPublica Illinois reporter Mick Dumke looks at the state’s political issues and personalities in this occasional column.
Like so many others, Stan Skoko was outraged by what he’d seen of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where TV cameras captured images of officers beating protesters with nightsticks, kicking them and throwing them into police wagons as tear gas floated over Michigan Avenue.
So Skoko, a commissioner in Clackamas County, Oregon, near Portland, fired off a note on his office letterhead to Mayor Richard J. Daley. But unlike the withering criticism from reporters and TV anchors covering the street clashes, Skoko wanted to let the mayor know he and the Chicago police had done a great job.
“Congratulations on the manner in which you handled the ridiculous demonstrations by certain persons of questionable intelligence in your City during the recent Democratic Convention,” Skoko wrote. “My only criticism of your action is you were too lenient.”
Fifty years ago this week, violence outside the convention and infighting within it captured the country’s attention, becoming an enduring sign of the political and cultural battles of the era, even for those of us who were born later.
But from the vantage point of 2018, it’s quite clear those divisions didn’t end with the 1960s. Neither did the practice of politicians exploiting public anxieties for their own gain and undercutting the civil rights of minorities and dissenters, to the applause of many citizens. Reactionary politics and attacks on the truth itself are again disturbingly common.
Last week, I paid a visit to the special collections library at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which houses a rich archive of papers from Daley’s decadeslong political career. Among boxes of records from 1968 are scores of letters from people like Skoko, who cheered the mayor’s crackdown and blamed the whole convention debacle on biased or fictionalized reporting from the media.
The facts of what happened are more complicated.
Most protesters in Chicago that week were peaceful, though some provoked officers by screaming epithets or throwing “rocks, sticks, bathroom tiles and even human feces,” according to the official federal report on the convention melees, released late in 1968.
But, the report concluded: “The nature of the response was unrestrained and indiscriminate police violence on many occasions, particularly at night. That violence was made all the more shocking by the fact that it was often inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat. … Newsmen and photographers were singled out for assault.”
Still, in the days and weeks after the convention, supporters of Daley and the police rallied to their defense, as the letters to City Hall show.
“The seven members of my family are in complete agreement with the actions of the Chicago Police Department,” South Side resident James Boyle wrote the mayor. “The mouthings of the New York television bunch made me sick. There must be some way to refute the propaganda that they broadcast during and after the confrontation of our police and the out of town hooligans.”
Lest the mayor think he was merely angling for a patronage job, Boyle added, “Neither I, nor my wife, are city workers, or are in any way dependent upon the Democratic organization for our livelihood.”
In fact, many of Daley’s fans noted that they weren’t Democrats at all.
“Just a note from a Republican to tell you I support you 1000% in your great effort to maintain law and order in our city,” Illinois state Rep. Henry Hyde wrote on Aug. 29, 1968 — three decades before he would lead the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in the U.S. House of Representatives. “God bless you and our courageous policemen!”
Col. C.G. Dietrich of San Francisco told the mayor: “Your treatment of the yippies, hippies, junkies, hoodlums, bums, and other scum during the recent convention was perfect. ... I noted with delight that the police devoted some richly deserved attention to the prime provocateurs — the press.”
A number of Southerners also commended Daley, some sharing their views that black and Jewish people were behind both the disorder in Chicago and the civil rights movement in their home states.
“I have seen an affidavit stating that ‘Beatniks’ were paid fifteen dollars per day, food and lodging,” wrote E. L. Culbreth, a North Carolina lawyer. He added that protesters were also offered all the interracial sex they wanted — though he used a racial slur — “to don priestly clothes and join the march from Selma to Montgomery.”
Letters praising Daley poured into City Hall from all over — from a rancher in Wyoming; federal judges in Nebraska and Pennsylvania; Local 471 of the Milk Drivers & Dairy Employees Union in Minneapolis; the mayors of the Texas cities of Centerville and Amarillo; and the leader of the Shannon Rovers Irish Pipe Band of Chicago. The head of the musicians blasted the media and promised the mayor, “We will do whatever we can as individuals and as a band to keep Chicago where it should be.”
A number of clergy also gave their blessing to the mayor and the police, including a Catholic priest at St. Nicholas Church in north suburban Evanston.
“The mayor showed the patience of Christ in his dealing with an ungrateful people,” wrote the priest, Father Kenneth, whose last name was illegible in the letter.
At the time, Daley claimed he received tens of thousands of letters, the vast majority of them from supporters. I only came across a few from critics in the UIC archives. One was sent by a convention delegate from Washington, D.C., who predicted the mayor’s tactics would be rejected at the polls.
“The Democratic party can ill afford to be ‘soft on fascism’ under Mayor Daley’s personal notion of ‘law and order,’” wrote the delegate, Channing Phillips.
Sure enough, the Democrats, divided internally over Vietnam, protesters and varying notions of “law and order,” lost the presidential election that fall as well as seats in Congress.
Daley remained in power until his death in 1976, the archetype of the old-school political strongman who ruled as he saw fit.
In a statement to the media after the convention, a copy of which is also in the archives, Daley created his own narrative about how he handled the protests, blasting the “terrorists” he accused of trying to “paralyze” Chicago.
“In the heat of emotion and riot some policemen may have overreacted,” Daley said, “but to judge the entire police force by the alleged action of a few would be just as unfair as to judge our entire younger generation by the actions of this mob.”
Five decades later, both in Chicago and around the country, we’re engaged in a new season of protests, debates over police reform, and looming elections — while political leaders try to shape their own versions of truth.
Protests and Blaming the Media. Sound Familiar? That Was During the ’68 Democratic National Convention.
ProPublica Illinois reporter Mick Dumke looks at the state’s political issues and personalities in this occasional column.
Amanda Biela was campaigning door to door in north suburban Glenview one afternoon last week when she stopped to talk with a senior watering his front lawn.
“I’m running for 15th District state rep,” Biela told him, “and I’m basically running against the Madigan machine.”
Biela explained that she’s challenging incumbent Rep. John D’Amico, which means she’s also taking on his ally Michael Madigan, the long-serving state House Speaker and Democratic Party leader. Biela, a former Chicago Public Schools teacher and mother of three, added that her top priority is lowering property taxes.
She didn’t mention that she’s a Republican. Why bring it up right away in a Democrat-dominated district?
It didn’t matter. The man remained focused on his grass. “All politicians are crooks,” he told Biela.
She smiled and went with it. “That’s why I’m running!” She offered him a flier. “Please, just think about it in November.”
The man accepted the flier, glanced at it, and stuffed it into the mailbox on this porch. Then he went back to his lawn.
Voters are angry — some to the point that they’ve tuned out politics — as I saw when I walked a few neighborhoods with Biela recently.
In most places, that could spell doom for an entrenched incumbent. But in the 15th District, made up of parts of the city’s Northwest Side and adjacent suburbs, Democratic Party insiders have triumphed for years, often without viable challengers. It’s a story that’s repeated in districts around Chicago every election cycle.
To add to her challenge, Biela has been forced to navigate a civil war within her own party as she tries to line up resources for a serious campaign.
In short, her race offers a snapshot of the Democratic political dynasties, Republican infighting and incompetence, and influence of big campaign money that have long defined Illinois and frustrated its voters.
And yet Biela argues, “I think this district can be flipped.”
It would be a huge upset. She’s taking on not just an incumbent with clout but a history of family and party domination.
D’Amico took office in 2004, but members of his family have run Chicago’s 39th Ward, which makes up a large chunk of the 15th District, for more than a half century. His grandfather, Anthony Laurino, became the ward’s alderman in 1965. When Laurino stepped down after 29 years in office, his daughter, Margaret Laurino— D’Amico’s aunt — succeeded him. She’s now been in office for 24 years.
In 1995, the elder Laurino was indicted by federal prosecutors for allegedly helping family members and allies get no-show city jobs. He died before his case was resolved, but both of D’Amico’s parents were convicted and sentenced to prison for their roles in the ghost payrolling system.
D’Amico is paid about $78,000 a year as a member of the Illinois House, but that’s his part-time job. He’s worked for the City of Chicago since 1981, and now makes about $107,000 a year as an assistant district superintendent in the water department, according to city payroll records.
Though he’s well aware Madigan is deeply unpopular across much of Illinois — and widely blamed for the state’s dire financial condition — D’Amico remains a steadfast ally, arguing the speaker has fended off a right-wing push by Gov. Bruce Rauner, a relentless Madigan critic.
Since taking office, D’Amico has only faced three election opponents. He beat them all by at least 19 points. His top campaign donor is Democratic Majority, a political action committee Madigan controls.
D’Amico rejects Biela’s charge that he’s a machine guy in lockstep with the speaker. He told me he’s repeatedly voted for property tax relief, as well as for investments in schools, parks and libraries.
“My campaign is based on volunteers and people based in the communities — people who believe in what I believe in,” he said.
Clearly, a lot would have to go Biela’s way for her to win. It doesn’t help that Republicans don’t have a functioning campaign operation in Chicago or Cook County.
Biela was recruited to run last year by fellow Republicans in the Northwest Side GOP Club, a group trying to build a presence in that corner of the city and nearby suburbs — including by playing off fears of an affordable housing proposal.
The Illinois Opportunity Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for smaller government and limits on union rights, stepped in to pay for Biela’s campaign legal fees, phone banking and consulting, records show.
But Biela said she was uncomfortable with how closely the IOP people and their ally Dan Proft, a well-known conservative activist, wanted to control her message.
Proft and IOP leaders have waged political war on Rauner and other Republicans they believe have betrayed the right on abortion, among other issues. During the primaries last winter, Proft served as an adviser to Rauner’s opponent, state Rep. Jeanne Ives, while a super PAC he runs, Liberty Principles, backed a challenge against House Republican Leader Jim Durkin. Proft’s candidates lost both races.
But even after the primaries, Biela said Proft told her she couldn’t work with Durkin or his House Republican Organization, saying, “It’s black or white — you have to pick a team.”
The conversation left her wondering how the GOP could beat Madigan and the Democrats if its factions are fighting with each other.
Proft didn’t dispute Biela’s account.
“We support candidates committed to the economic liberty policy agenda who want to bring policy revolution to Springfield,” he said in an email. “The Rauner-financed House Republicans support surrender Republicans who raise taxes and fold in with Chicago Democrat Socialists and their big government, cultural Marxist, status quo agenda. The two visions are mutually exclusive.”
Proft characterized Biela as naive. “Unfortunately, like so many first-time candidates, Amanda doesn’t know what she doesn’t know,” he said. “Amanda will lose badly.”
After their conversation, Biela said, she broke with Proft and began working with the House Republican Organization, which has helped her with promotional materials and volunteers. In June, Durkin’s campaign fund transferred $250 to Biela’s.
That’s not much money. Even after Rauner’s campaign gave the House Republican Organization $2 million a few weeks ago — he’s the group’s top financial backer — the HRO has to focus on districts that the GOP might be able to take from Democrats. Biela, who’s hoping for more support, said she has to prove her district is one of them.
She also knows she can’t afford to blanket the district with mailings or put ads on TV, as more flush campaigns are able to do. At the end of June, when quarterly reports were last filed, her campaign fund had about $6,100 on hand. D’Amico’s had $369,000, much of it from Madigan’s organizations and various unions.
In spite of the financial and organizational mismatch, Beila argues she could pull off an upset. Biela said a lot of people, including some Democrats, are tired of being overtaxed and ruled by political families like D’Amico’s and Madigan’s. So she’s walking the district and talking about the machine and high taxes — and mostly avoiding subjects like abortion, immigration and President Trump.
“I talk about things that have an appeal to everyone,” she said.
She’s often rebuffed — sometimes even before she speaks. But at some homes she’s been greeted with enthusiasm. When Glenview resident Christopher Kellogg opened his door last week, Biela made her usual declaration that she was taking on the Madigan machine.
“Oh, thank God,” Kellogg told her. “I’m fed up with it.”
Over the last 25 years, Illinois State Police have built a database of more than 90,000 people they deem to be gang members — but won’t say what gangs they’re in or where they live.
The Cook County sheriff’s office has a gang database, too. It includes 25,000 people, including hundreds whose gangs aren’t known and hundreds who are dead.
And the Illinois Department of Corrections says the only information it can provide about its gang database is that it can’t provide any information.
The Chicago Police Department’s massive gang database has received considerable scrutiny in recent months. But it’s not the only gang tracking system used by area law enforcement. Police and other authorities have been keeping files of alleged gang members for decades now. A Chicago officer recently told me that when he first joined the force in the 1980s, police bought high school yearbooks to help them keep track of names and faces in their districts.
Nowadays, the databases maintained by law enforcement are far bigger, more efficient and easier to share. But most still include information that’s subjective, unverified or simply wrong — though officials at hundreds of government agencies, and even some private institutions, can access and use them, with potentially troubling consequences.
Some of the mistakes are so obvious as to be absurd. The Chicago Police Department’s gang database included 13 people who were supposedly 118 years old, as I reported in April. Two others were listed as 132.
In response, the department promised to limit outside access to the database while allowing people listed in it to challenge the information. A police spokesman told me they’re still working on the changes. But last month four Chicago men filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that false information in the database led to them being harassed by police, losing out on jobs and, in one case, facing deportation proceedings.
The databases maintained by the state police, the sheriff’s office and the Department of Corrections raise another round of questions about the fairness and accuracy of lists kept secret from the public but circulated widely among government officials.
Illinois State Police
The state police have refused to release copies of what officials call its “gang file,” denying multiple requests I submitted under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Police officials said only authorized agencies are allowed to access the information, known as Law Enforcement Agencies Data System, or LEADS, which includes the gang database.
The state police eventually provided some figures that offer a glimpse of its gang records, but they raise as many questions as they answer.
As of July, more than 90,000 people are in the gang database, the state police said.
They were added not just by state troopers — more than 1,500 police departments, correctional facilities and other law enforcement agencies also have access to the database. In fact, two-thirds of the people in the database were entered by officials at county jails and state prisons, according to state police officials and records.
The other 31,000 were added by state police and local departments. A file provided by the state police shows that the biggest group was put into the system in the 1990s. Almost half are listed as white — though that also includes Hispanics.
The file is missing plenty of other important details. “We do not collect an ‘age’ data set,” a state police official wrote me. “We are also unable to provide data on ‘gang affiliation’ or ‘where the individual was first entered,’ nor are we able to provide the ‘reason the individual was entered’ because that is not included in our data sets.”
All gang information must be “corroborated by specific, documented and reliable information” that’s updated each year, said Lt. Matt Boerwinkle, a state police spokesman.
But what qualifies as “evidence” of gang membership is often open to interpretation. As with Chicago’s database, tattoos, emblems or other gang markings may count. In other cases, someone could be named as a gang member by a source who, according to police, has been “reliable” in the past.
Police officials said they work to make sure the database isn’t misused.
But records show the list of agencies that can access and use the information includes court systems, U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, and investigative offices at the Chicago Housing Authority, the Illinois Tollway and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Even some private-sector institutions, such as the public safety department at the Moody Bible Institute, can get into the database.
In other words, the state police gang data potentially could surface in immigration enforcement, court proceedings, public housing investigations and campus policing — whether it’s accurate or not.
Cook County Sheriff
Chicago police officers have told me they’ve found the gang data tracked by the sheriff and the Department of Corrections to be more reliable than what’s in their own system. Their reasoning: When someone is locked up in the county jail or a state prison, he’s more likely to be truthful about his gang ties so he’s not housed in a dangerous situation with gang rivals.
But only some of the information maintained by the sheriff’s office comes from the jail. Authorities from 371 different agencies in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin can obtain or add information to what’s known formally as the Regional Gang Intelligence Database.
Jail officials said they ask about gang affiliations when they interview new inmates during intake. The information is then regularly updated. After a fight, for example, gang intelligence officers question inmates to determine what happened.
“They’ll take that information and put it into the databases for use out on the streets,” a veteran correctional officer at the jail told me. “Information actually flows both ways, from the streets back into the jail as well.”
Sheriff’s officials said the database follows federal guidelines for determining gang membership, which are similar to the state’s rules. A person must meet two of five qualifying indicators, a supervisor must approve the entry and the information has to be supported by documents.
Still, these determinations can be subjective. And even information that’s solid could soon be out of date. As the correctional officer pointed out to me, people often shift gang alliances or factions, making the data difficult to keep current.
In late June, the sheriff’s office provided me with a copy of the database in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The database includes more than 25,000 individuals. But sheriff’s officials also indicated that they maintain more data than they shared with me.
While entries are updated or “purged” after five years, the old data isn’t deleted altogether. If someone is later arrested or jailed again, authorities can “re-activate” the entry.
In some cases, key details appear to be missing from the copy I received. For example, more than 400 gangs and factions are listed in the data. They include large, well-known organizations such as the Gangster Disciples and Latin Kings but also more than 100 gangs that have only one listed member.
But more than 150 others are in the database even though their gangs are listed as “unknown” or “null.”
The database also includes more than 400 people who are unlikely to go back to the jail again, since they’re listed as dead.
Sheriff’s officials said such information can still help them prevent conflicts and investigate crimes. They stressed that the database does not provide probable cause to pull someone over or target them, acknowledging broader concerns over how law enforcement databases have been used. This week they even invited me to their offices to discuss them.
“We’re sensitive to the debate and concerned about it,” said Cara Smith, chief policy officer in the sheriff’s office. “We want to make sure the data we have is accurate and follows federal rules. But it also helps to ensure the safety and security of the jail.”
Illinois Department of Corrections
Police officers say the gang data maintained by IDOC is even better than what they get out of the jail. But state corrections officials will not answer even basic questions about how the information is collected, verified or used.
“IDOC tracks all gangs in the state of Illinois,” spokeswoman Lindsey Hess wrote in an email. “No further information can be released.”
The department’s secrecy is encoded in state law. In 2000, the General Assembly passed legislation formally creating a gang intelligence unit within the prison system. Information gathered by the unit “shall be highly confidential” and is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act.
However, the data “may be shared with other law enforcement agencies in order to curb gang activities outside of correctional institutions,” the law says.
When I asked for a list of how many agencies have access to its gang data, a department official responded: “IDOC does not maintain or possess records responsive to your request.”
So the Illinois Department of Corrections doesn’t know who else can see its gang database? The department won’t say.
State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt said these kinds of questions show why she has called for more oversight of gang databases. A bill she sponsored would prohibit their use outside law enforcement, but it’s been sitting in a House committee since passing the Senate in May.
In the meantime, as the result of a separate measure she pushed, state officials are required to conduct a review of gang databases and issue a report by January.
Van Pelt said that was the only way she could ensure the state agencies disclosed how the databases are being used.
“It’s so hard to get anything from them,” she said.