As court orders go, a Cook County judge’s recent decision to make Chicago Public Schools officials turn over the so-called “LaRaviere files” don’t rank up there with, say, the U.S. Supreme Court compelling President Nixon to release the White House tapes.
Not that I’m comparing Rahm to Nixon.
It’s more that I’ve got Nixon and his Watergate crimes on my mind these days, for all the obvious reasons.
But Judge Sanjay Tailor’s ruling is pretty big news here in Chicago for anyone who takes seriously Mayor Rahm’s claim to running a transparent, open city government.
Let’s fill in the details. The LaRaviere in question is Troy, the former principal at Blaine Elementary School who was bounced from his post last April on trumped-up charges of malfeasance that no one—with the possible exception of Rahm—actually believes.
And I doubt even Rahm believes them.
After CPS officials fired LaRaviere, a north-side activist named Nick Burt asked CPS to turn over the documents and e-mails related to the principal’s dismissal, including memos or e-mails that mentioned Senator Bernie Sanders.
Why Sanders? Burt thought LaRaviere may have been punished for openly endorsing Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, the mayor’s choice. But even if the Sanders endorsement played no role in LaRaviere’s dismissal, Burt figured it was worth going on a fishing expedition to see what Rahm was up to.
Thus, he entered a circle of hell known as the FOIA maze.
FOIA, or the Freedom of Information Act, is of course the state law that requires public entities like CPS to turn over public documents, including any that might indicate why they fired the mayor’s most outspoken critic. Which, now that I think of it, is not completely unlike President Trump firing the man—FBI director James Comey—who was heading the investigation into Russia’s alleged meddling with our elections.
Looks like I’ve got Trump as well as Nixon on my mind.
Although FOIA laws are intended to help the public access information about the inner workings of government, FOIA is often wielded as a weapon the mayor’s aides use to frustrate truth seekers until their spirits are broken and they raise their hands in desperation as if to say, “We quit! Do whatever you want, Mayor Rahm.”
In this case, CPS officials hit Burt with the oldest trick in the FOIA book: delay, delay, delay.
For months, Burt got no response, so he hired a lawyer, Daniel Massoglia. And on September 7 he filed a lawsuit in Cook County court, aiming to force CPS to turn over the information.
On September 9, the Sun-Times wrote a story about his case. Within a few days, CPS sent over a bunch of newspaper clippings, mostly having to do with Bernie Sanders. In short, nothing Burt didn’t know already.
That may be the second-oldest trick in the mayor’s FOIA book—feed ’em bullshit.
More days passed. It looked as though Burt would never get to the bottom of things.
And then, last month, he hit pay dirt. Well, as much pay dirt as you’re going to hit in a FOIA case.
As part of a court-ordered exchange of documents, CPS turned over a transcript of an instant message exchange that schools aides Andrew Mason and Emily Bittner had sometime last year regarding Burt’s FOIA request. In it they mention Massoglia, Burt’s lawyer:
Bittner: One of his likes is “the law”
Mason: And he lectures.
Bittner: I’m sure.
Mason: Big tell on his letter, he uses the firm’s stationary but uses his home address. False alarm, this is a lame recreational FOIA.
In other words, Massoglia’s not a serious lawyer, at least in their estimation, so there’s really no reason to respond to this FOIA request.
CPS also sent Burt a copy of a May 20, 2016, e-mail from Mason to Bittner that says: “random attorney [Massoglia], seeking emails for various people regarding [LaRaviere] and Bernie Sanders. After weeks of narrowing, I would deny the [Troy LaRaviere documents] for various reasons, but grant the Bernie Sanders portion because almost all of them are news clips.”
In other words, we’ll feed Massoglia some bullshit to justify not turning over the good stuff about LaRaviere, and then we’ll turn over a bunch of new clips about Bernie. Which is what they did.
Clearly, Mason and Bittner didn’t think much of Burt or his lawyer.
But as we all know, every now and then David beats Goliath. And so it was on May 23, when Judge Tailor ordered CPS to stop messing around and turn over the LaRaviere documents, as the district hasn’t shown a compelling reason why they should be kept secret.
So now, at long last, we’ll get to see what little secrets Rahm and his flunkies have been hiding—if they’ve been hiding anything at all.
It could be that there’s an e-mail from Emanuel to Forrest Claypool, his appointed schools CEO, along the lines of: “Listen, you dimwit, fire that fucker or I’ll kick your ass.”
Which sounds like something Rahm might say to his most loyal of sidekicks.
Or maybe there’s nothing interesting in the files, and Rahm’s clan at CPS has been messing with Burt for no reason other than that they can.
CPS didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story. One thing’s for certain, though: their FOIA high jinks will cost the dead-broke school system money—because they’re going to have to pay Massoglia’s legal fees.
So the “random attorney” who works out of his house will get the last laugh after all.
In any event, CPS and Burt will return to court next month to figure out a timetable for turning over the stuff they should have given to him months and months ago.
“We’ve done all that we can,” Burt says. “And now we’ll see what we get.” v