- Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times
- Governor Bruce Rauner says you don’t have the right to know what state business he’s conducting behind closed doors.
Governor Bruce Rauner believes he can hold secret meetings on public property.
He also maintains that taxpayers have no right to know who he’s consulted, even long after the conferences are over and policies have been enacted as a result.
A lawyer for Rauner staked out those positions in a letter last week to the office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
It was submitted as part of a battle with the Reader over whether copies of the governor’s past calendar and meeting schedule should be released to the public. I requested the records in May under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, but Christina McClernon, an assistant general counsel for Rauner, says he has the right to keep them private.
“The Governor’s Office was under no obligation to provide the requested appointment calendars to Mr. Dumke because these documents are not ‘public records’ under FOIA,” she wrote in a July 16 letter to the Public Access Bureau, a division of the attorney general’s office that rules on FOIA disputes.
If the governor’s position is upheld, it would be a setback for anyone who thinks taxpayers should get to know who has access to public officials conducting business with public funds. The letter suggests the calendars and meeting schedules of every other public official in Illinois could also be kept secret.
I’m writing about the back and forth to keep the legal dispute open and public.
During his $57 million campaign for governor, Rauner promised to bring a new level of openness to state government, painting incumbent Pat Quinn as a product of the corrupt Democratic machine that conducted public business in backroom deals. “This is about transparency and accountability,” Rauner declared.
Since taking office, though, Rauner has worked to conceal how he operates.
He’s made good on vows to fight for a probusiness “turnaround” agenda that would tighten the rules for union organizing, worker’s compensation, and filing lawsuits. Since Democrats have rejected the proposals, Rauner has refused to work with house speaker Michael Madigan and senate president John Cullerton on a budget deal, resulting in a state shutdown during which the governor has remained largely out of public view.
At the same time, he has refused to disclose who has access to his office, let alone what he’s working on. In some cases, he also won’t say who’s being compensated with taxpayer money to do work for the state.
In May I submitted a FOIA request intended to see who has Rauner’s ear. Specifically, I asked for copies of his daily schedule and meeting calendar from his inauguration in January through early May.
The governor’s office eventually provided copies of the schedules, but more than 150 appointments were blacked out—an average of more than one secret meeting a day, as Ben Joravsky and I wrote last month.
An attorney for Rauner argued that the redactions were justified because the information was “preliminary” and protected by attorney-client privilege, two loopholes in the FOIA frequently invoked by officials to avoid releasing records.
We then asked the public access bureau to weigh in, arguing that citizens have a clear right to know what the governor is up to. We stressed that we never asked what was said at the meetings—only who was in on them—so it was illogical to claim that releasing the information would reveal confidential discussions.
But last week the governor’s office responded that the public doesn’t have the right to see his daily schedules in any form.
In a five-page letter, McClernon—Rauner’s assistant general counsel and freedom of information officer—cited old cases from federal court, Ohio, and Pennsylvania in arguing that the governor’s schedules and calendars are off limits. She also claimed that releasing the documents could violate the governor’s security, even long after the events are over.
But the letter also indicated that the governor simply doesn’t want the public to know who has access to him. The calendars “reveal the identities of people with whom he has met and consulted and thus can be read to determine the substance and direction of his judgment and mental processes,” McClernon wrote.
The arguments have a familiar ring. Five years ago I went through a similar battle with lawyers for the city of Chicago over schedules for then-mayor Richard M. Daley. They argued that releasing them would be too “burdensome” and could endanger the mayor.
But the attorney general’s office eventually rejected those claims and determined that the mayor’s schedule and meeting calendar were indeed public records. “The public has a legitimate interest in learning of its Mayor’s public meetings held in City Hall,” wrote an assistant attorney general.
Yet Rauner’s administration is fighting over more than copies of his meeting calendar. Previously it’s refused to disclose which legislators attended policy planning meetings.
And last month I requested a list of private-sector law firms hired to do state work—that is, firms paid with taxpayer money. McClernon refused to provide that information either, saying it too was protected by attorney-client privilege.
Is the governor really claiming that the public doesn’t have the right to know how taxpayer funds are spent? Public contracts are among the classic and longstanding examples of “information regarding the affairs of government” meant to be disclosed under the Illinois FOIA.
The public access bureau will have a chance to weigh in on both FOIA matters in the coming weeks.
So far, we know this much: Rauner is being transparent about what he thinks of open government.