The Chicago Tribune is suing Chicago State for the records they requested under the Freedom of Information Act (see the Tribune story of February 6 by Dawn Rhodes). Their complaint paints a vivid picture of a university administration and its lawyers engaging in stonewalling and outright dishonesty.
The Tribune’s FOIA request of October 25, 2016, sought “all contracts . . . awarded since January 1, 2011 for work on the University’s West Side satellite campus . . . Any and all reports submitted to the university from its contractors detailing the work or research completed on the West Side satellite campus [since] January 1, 2011 . . . [and] All purchase and sale agreements, and related amendments to those agreements between the university and the seller of the property . . . selected for the West Side satellite campus.”
On November 1, 2016, the university extended the time for its response by five business days, as permitted by the FOIA statute. Then on November 16, 2016, several days past the deadline for its response, the legal department denied the request in its entirety, citing as one of the exemptions: “[p]roposals and bids for any contract, grant, or agreement, including information which if it were disclosed would frustrate procurement or give an advantage to any person proposing to enter into a contract agreement with the body, until an award or final selection is made (bold mine).”
On December 7, 2016, one of the Tribune’s attorneys, attempting to amicably resolve the matter, sent an e-mail to Robin Hawkins. Noting that Hawkins had failed to respond to two previous attempts at contacting her, the attorney wrote: “if you do not respond to this message and provide a time this week that we can speak directly about your intentions with respect to [the] Tribune’s unfulfilled [and improperly withheld) FOIA requests we will be constrained to seek other relief and will do so without further notice to you.”
This apparently got the attention of the legal department, because on December 8, 2016, Hawkins and Cage called the Tribune’s attorney. Although the Tribune’s attorney “pointed out that certain contracts had been awarded, and payments had been made to certain vendors,” Chicago State refused to produce the records. Finally, “CSU took the position that any (italics original) records that bear on the West Side Campus development project may properly be withheld as pertaining to real estate transactions, and concluded the call.”
That same day, Ms. Rhodes sent a FOIA request for additional information, specifically several purchase orders related to the West Side campus and for any “invoices . . . receipts . . . and additional documentation that details the work completed, in progress or planned in accordance with the aforementioned purchase orders.”
On January 3, 2017, the legal department denied that request, citing the same exemptions to the FOIA law it relied upon for its November 16 denial. On February 22, 2017, the Tribune filed suit in the Circuit Court.
There are a number of problems with this scenario. First, the Tribune already had records provided by Chicago State to the Illinois Capital Development Board (CDB), another public entity, one which found the Tribune’s request for public records wholly appropriate. Second, based on the records provided to the CDB by Chicago State, a number of contracts had already been awarded, these were actually listed in Ms. Rhodes’ original FOIA request. As of the date of the report (January 12, 2015), the project had already spent $340,000 with another $661,000 “encumbered.” Third, Ms. Rhodes asked for a number of specific purchase orders in her original FOIA request.
So, the university stonewalled the Tribune and lied by claiming in its denial that contracts that had actually been awarded were not really finalized and thus were exempt from disclosure. Another brilliant legal strategy that will do nothing but generate more negative news and expose our administration again as the law-flouting and incompetent entity we have come to know. Why do these people in legal still have their jobs?
If you're interested, here's a story on the suit that contains a link to the complaint: https://www.courthousenews.com/chicago-state-university-accused-of-hiding-financial-records/