A government oversight group has filed a motion to reopen its case against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel over Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for personal emails that relate to public business.
The Better Government Association (BGA) said the motion comes after a settlement in the case in December 2016, when Emanuel's office agreed to release emails covered under FOIA requirements. Emanuel's Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey described it as a “landmark transparency agreement."
At the time of the settlement, the BGA reserved its right to challenge the mayor’s office if it believed the office withheld some emails or information.
“After reviewing the emails that were released, BGA notified the Mayor’s Office that BGA intended to challenge a number of redactions and the Mayor’s Office reconsidered its exemption claims as to some, but not all, of those challenges,” the BGA argues in its motion. "In addition, the Mayor's Office has withheld a number of emails entirely.”
The BGA calls for Cook County Judge Sophia Hall to review the mayor's exemption claims and issue a summary judgment on their merits.
Emanuel's office withheld more than 300 emails and redacted portions of other emails, the BGA said. The office provided an index giving a description of what the emails contained and an explanation of why they were withheld.
The index includes exemptions such as protecting opinions expressed while creating government policy, invasion of personal privacy, and information that would endanger the lives of safety of law enforcement personnel.
"The city has complied and released all relevant emails under that agreement, which were subject to the same legal review as any FOIA (open records) request, and any exemptions were properly applied and reasonable," McCaffrey said, according to the BGA.
The BGA reviewed the index’s content summaries and found exemptions that it considers to be overreaching. It characterized the emails as discussions of talking points or press strategy, communications between Emanuel and non-governmental parties including Grosvenor Capital Management CEO Michael Sacks, who is connected to the mayor politically as a key fundraiser and a sounding board.
In other instances, the BGA said it was difficult to gauge whether the withheld emails might contain publicly relevant information due to vague descriptions on the index.
“There is no longer any dispute as to whether the emails in question are public records subject to FOIA,” the BGA motion says. “The only remaining question is whether those public records may be withheld under one of the FOIA exemptions.”