Watchdog group slams state's FOIA system as records request drags on
Alerted to withheld information, the Illinois consumer group Edgar County Watchdogs recently publicized its continuing concerns regarding a 4-year-old conviction of two local policemen whom the investigative outfit believes may have allowed another to escape justice.
The controversy centers on records, redactions and equipment in a 2012 verdict involving Edgar County Corrections officers. The conviction ensued after two officers assigned to a jail facility were charged with having sex with inmates. The charges focused not only on the illicit activities, but also on purported attempts to cover up the crimes via a refusal to release videotaped victims’ interviews.
According to the Edgar County Watchdogs (ECW), the Illinois Attorney General’s Office determined in 2015 that the Illinois State Police (ISP) violated the Freedom of Information Act when they refused to provide records regarding the case when requested.
Referring to the sheriff at the time as “Gun-Running Sheriff Tim Crippes,” ECW principal Kirk Allen pursued an inquiry. When he requested access to videotapes, the department responded that it “does not possess the proper equipment to adequately obliterate the sections of the video that are subject to redaction. This interview was not transcribed; therefore, no transcript exists. Consequently, ISP has no further material to release to you."
ECW didn't accept this rationale.
“The ISP ignored the request until after the deadline for compliance, then claimed compliance was unduly burdensome, costly and violated the dignity of the victims,” Allen said in April. Additionally, the ISP said “redacting the interviews would constitute the creation of new records.”
Allen subsequently sent a review request directly to the Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor (PAC) Office dated July 29, 2012, citing nine separate violations. When the AG’s office notified the ISP requesting records, ISP said it would not comply on Nov. 13, 2014.
“The ISP ignored the AG’s PAC and never supplied them with the requested records,” Allen said.
The ISP’s explanation referred to a state law aimed at treating crime victims with fairness and respect for the sake of their dignity and privacy. ISP said providing copies of victims’ interviews would violate their statutory rights under the Rights of Crime Victims and Witnesses Act.
Allen took issue with the defense, observing that the legislation itself does not prohibit dissemination of specific information. Moreover, he said, “It does not suggest that those undefined privacy rights outweigh the specific disclosure requirements of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act).”
Ultimately, The AG’s PAC concluded the matter wholly in the watchdog group’s favor, finding fault with ISP's response and that ISP had failed to demonstrate that the responsive records are exempt from disclosure, then instructed ISP to provide the records.
“Because ISP failed to respond to Mr. Allen's FOIA request within five business days after its receipt, it has waived the opportunity to assert … FOIA,” the AG’s PAC office said. It went on to summarily dismiss the notions that non-compliance could be excused due to costs and that redaction of information constitutes the creation of new information, and further clarified language to avoid misinterpretation of the law.
"The purpose of the act is to ensure disclosure of information, not to protect information from disclosure,” the Attorney General's Office said.
Despite the AG’s instructions, the matter is still pending. The AG’s ruling was a non-binding opinion, rather than a mandatory requirement. Hence, ECW — still awaiting the information to be made public four years later — now urges ISP Director Leo Schmitz to investigate, establish the truth and “take corrective action” on the matter.
“A delay is the same as a denial,” Allen said. “We waited over 2½ years, and when the public access counselor finally made its determination, the Illinois State Police simply ignored it. It not only shows how slow and unresponsive the public access counselor is, but also that it has no power.”
ECW’s case is but one of many in which unresolved matters can drag on for years.
“The message … is that every public body doesn’t have to bother answering a FOIA,” Allen said. “I’m so fed up with the public access counselor. It has subpoena power. It has the power to take people to court, but it never exercises that power. It has no teeth.”
The Edgar County Watchdogs works for accountability and transparency and scans the state for instances of noncompliance and/or corruption. ECW was founded in July 2011 to advance truth, transparency and accountability in Illinois. Its Illinois Leaks website maintains a tip line for news and has been featured in Forbes magazine.