Global Freedom of Expression


Analysis: Illinois Law Hasn’t Stopped Public Agencies From Withholding Records

Government agencies continue to violate public records laws at high frequency despite 2009 changes intended to curb abuses.

The Freedom of Information Act in Illinois is best understood by viewing the Act in two eras: “Before Blago” and “After Blago.”

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was removed from office in 2009 after his arrest on corruption charges. The scandal set off a new round of government accountability efforts in Illinois.

Before Blago, getting your FOIA request denied meant you were out of luck unless you had a good lawyer. After Blago came the Public Access Counselor’s office — or PAC — designed by the state legislature to provide an alternative to litigation for disputes between members of the public and public bodies around records requests.

It’s almost nine years since the PAC — 13 full-time lawyers, 3 supervisors, and 4 support staff — started receiving, investigating and ruling on records disputes under the supervision of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office. With Lisa Madigan on her way out and A.G.-elect Kwame Raoul gearing up, it’s a good time to assess how well public officials are sharing information with the public in the PAC era.

Last October, ProPublica Illinois’ Mick Dumke published an in-depth review of the PAC based on a comprehensive record of PAC rulings on the Freedom of Information Act from April 6, 2010, to March 15, 2018. Dumke’s story is a critique of the office itself that consolidates arguments frequently raised by critics, including the BGA: Resolution of a PAC review can often take months or longer, and the vast majority of the time it ends in a non-binding determination that many public bodies have ignored with no repercussions.

What follows here is the BGA’s analysis of that same PAC dataset — which is publicly available and dissectable — to assess behavior patterns for the public bodies based on the findings and rulings of the PAC.

The BGA shared its findings with the PAC, which issued an official statement expressing its concern over the behavior of public bodies.

“Despite years of work to change the culture of secrecy in Illinois government, the BGA’s findings show that many government offices still routinely disregard their obligation to provide access to government records,” the statement read. “The role of the Public Access Counselor is to resolve open records disputes, and we devote thousands of hours to doing that every year. But, as these findings demonstrate, far too often, government offices are choosing to ignore the law and working to thwart the Public Access Counselor.”

Read the Full Study by the Better Government Association 


Annum Haider

Civic Engagement & Research Analyst, Better Government Association