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City To FOIA: Drop Dead

Last week the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform released its annual lobbying survey, reporting that taxpayers paid lobbyists hired by cities, counties and public agencies nearly $6.4 million to influence their own state government last year.

In researching the report, though, the ICPR experienced a more fundamental problem with our political culture: The widespread disregard of the Freedom of Information Act.

"Relying on the Freedom of Information Act to get government lobbying contract information was time-consuming and too often produced partial records or none at all," the ICPR said.

The problem, it seems, is that public officials in Chicago act like it's their money - and their government. Aside from relying on your money to fund them, you are incidental at best and a treacherous obstacle at worst.

Let's take a look at what ICPR experienced in Chicago alone.

"In the ICPR survey, more than 10 percent of the units of governments responded later than the maximum 14 working days to respond. Twenty units did not respond for a month or more. Even some of the larger government bodies with experience handling FOIA requests, including the City of Chicago, took more than two months to respond. ICPR's experience with the City of Chicago is illustrative of problems we had with many units of government. Obtaining a full response to the initial request required four separate follow up letters (five letters in all) to four different agencies within the City.

"* ICPR mailed its request to the City of Chicago's Law Department by first class mail on Aug. 21, 2009. This followed the practice ICPR had developed in the previous two annual lobbying reports. The letter sought contracts, invoices, and records of payments from the City to state lobbyists, and specifically noted a prior relationship between the City and William Luking & Associates. This letter drew no response from the City.

"* ICPR hand delivered a second letter on March 19, 2010, citing the changes to the FOIA law that took effect on January 1, 2010. This drew a response that the Law Department had no records responsive to our request. The Law Department cited a 1999 court ruling that each department of the City is a separate entity under FOIA and suggested that ICPR send a request to the Department of Procurement Services.

"* ICPR hand delivered its third letter to the Department of Procurement Services (DPS) on April 8, 2010. DPS responded with a copy of a contract signed in 2006 with William Filan, Ltd, but did not include any invoices or records of payments to William Filan, Ltd, nor did it include any information related to William Luking & Associates. In a follow up phone call, DPS recommended ICPR submit a FOIA letter to the Mayor's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, as that was the department named in the Filan contract. From past experience, we know how to use the City's website to find information on contracts with specific contractors, and were able to find indications of payments to Filan, but without any details beyond amounts and dates (such as, invoices showing why the payment was due).

"* ICPR hand delivered a fourth letter to the Mayor's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs (MOIG) on April 20, 2010 seeking contracts, invoices, and statements showing payments to lobbyists. A response on April 28 noted that MOIG had no documents responsive to our request. In a follow-up phone conversation, MOIG confirmed that it has no contracts with William Luking & Associates, even though the firm listed the City of Chicago as a client in calendar years 2008 and 2009 (and, indeed, for 2010). MOIG also suggested sending a FOIA request to the Finance Department to look for records of payments or invoices.

"* ICPR hand delivered a fifth letter to the City of Chicago Finance Department on April 29, 2010, seeking copies of invoices or records of payments to lobbyists, specifically naming William Luking & Associates. The Finance Department responded in a letter dated May 7, postmarked May 12 and received on May 17. This letter rejected our FOIA request, noting:

"'As the Comptroller's accounting system does not categorize payments by tasks performed by the payee, there would be no way to verify a payment was made for a particular task, including the lobbying of state government, without inspecting each of the thousands of payments the City made to individuals and businesses during your specified time frame. Therefore, as your FOIA request is currently written, the dedication of staff and/or resources is unduly burdensome on the daily operations of the Office of the City Comptroller.'

"And yet, each of the five letters ICPR sent to the various departments of the City of Chicago specifically referenced William Luking & Associates, noting that the firm had recently registered with the Secretary of State as a lobbyist for the City. None of the City departments we contacted were able to produce any documents showing that William Luking & Associates actually represents the City of Chicago.

"That our efforts to obtain lobbying records from the City of Chicago should come to this end is particularly ironic, given that the City of Chicago argued that units of government should be exempt from lobbyist registration precisely because they are covered by FOIA, and their lobbying records are accessible through FOIA."


The full report is available here.


Comments welcome.


Posted on May 25, 2010

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