Chicago Democrat Michael Madigan is known as a tireless worker — the nation’s longest serving statehouse speaker, chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, kingmaker and career-breaker — and he does it all without the aid of email or an appointment calendar.
That is one extraordinary fact turned up by an Associated Press public-records request of the General Assembly’s leaders in advance of Sunshine Week. The other is that the Illinois Senate considers itself immune under the state Constitution from having to turn over records.
The AP submitted such requests to legislative leaders in all 50 states for daily schedules and emails from government accounts for the week of Feb. 1-7. In Illinois, which was the last state in the U.S. to adopt an open-records law, the effort produced nothing, for the following reasons:
Lawmakers aren’t ‘public bodies’
Individual legislators are not considered “public bodies” under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act because they cannot alone pull the levers of government like, say, the governor, who discloses his appointment calendars. But there are nuances in key court cases on the issue and advocates say transparency is just good government.
“There’s a compelling public interest to know who has access to legislators — because not everybody does,” said Matt Topic, a public-access lawyer for the Chicago-based firm Loevy & Loevy.
The AP’s requests produced nothing from Madigan, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, Senate President John Cullerton or Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno. It has appealed the denials to the state attorney general’s public-access referee, who often takes years to decide.
The Constitution states that while in session, legislators are free from having to appear in court or before any “tribunal.” But whether the Senate considers taxpayers a “tribunal” is unclear.
John Patterson, spokesman for Cullerton, did not respond to questions. Patty Schuh, a spokeswoman for Radogno, a Lemont Republican, referred the AP to the denial letter from Senate FOIA officer Giovanni Randazzo.
House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat, sponsored the FOIA in 1983, declaring during floor debate: “The General Assembly is not exempt, nor is any agency of state government.”
House FOIA officer Brad Bolin said the only AP-requested records that exist are emails sent and received by Durkin, which Bolin declared exempt. Durkin spokeswoman Vicki Crawford did not answer how the Western Springs Republican keeps track of his schedule.
When asked whether Madigan, who has served in the Legislature since 1971, uses email, spokesman Steve Brown said, “No, not really.”
An appointment calendar? “No,” Brown said. “Not that I’m aware of.”
The FOIA makes an exception for “preliminary drafts” expressing opinions to encourage brainstorming by public servants for the best policy ideas without fear that they’ll be publicized. The section specifically covers “preparation of legislative documents.”
The House and Senate say all emails and calendar entries are preliminary drafts. The AP argued in its appeal that those items would have to include proposed legislation or language.
Invasion of personal privacy
FOIA allows the government to withhold “personal identifiers” in public records, such as Social Security or driver’s license numbers. Both the House and Senate use constitutional cover in arguing that publishing the names of people who contact legislators would discourage citizens from continuing to do so.
But privacy doesn’t cover officials’ public duties. And petitioners include lobbyists, other elected officials or corporate CEOs who are bending legislators’ ears — and typically pack more influence than an average voter.