Updated: 9:12 p.m.
WBEZ filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Illinois Senate, alleging that details from the recent federal anti-corruption raids of a top legislator’s offices are being hidden from public view in violation of the state’s open-records law.
The suit was filed in Sangamon County Circuit Court by lawyer Matt Topic and comes a day after Democratic Senate President John Cullerton’s office gave reporters heavily blacked-out documents from the FBI investigation of powerful state Sen. Martin Sandoval, a high-ranking Cullerton ally.
Federal agents visited the Springfield and Cicero offices of Sandoval — a Democrat who has been a lawmaker since 2003 — last Tuesday, and WBEZ immediately filed a request under the state’s Freedom of Information Act for the search warrant that was served. Search warrants and subpoenas that are sent to government agencies are commonly released to the media in Illinois upon request.
But in this case, Cullerton’s office instead decided to delete dozens of names of individuals and companies who were mentioned in the search warrant from the copies given to WBEZ and other news organizations.
What little was not blacked out by Cullerton shows that the feds are engaged in a wide-ranging probe into serious allegations against Sandoval — who remains chairman of the Senate’s Transportation Committee despite Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s call Wednesday for his removal from the key post.
Cullerton resisted that suggestion and stood by Sandoval, saying the matter is an “active investigation.”
Court records show federal authorities are looking into possible violations of seven federal statutes, including laws against conspiracy, mail fraud and “interference with commerce by threats or violence.” Sandoval has not been charged with wrongdoing.
In response to WBEZ’s open-records request, Cullerton’s office redacted the names of Sandoval’s personal businesses, lobbyists, concrete and construction companies, an unnamed municipality’s president and attorney, a foundation, and a political-action committee.
The newly filed lawsuit alleges that the state Senate’s deletions were made “in willful violation of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act” and seeks unredacted documents.
On Tuesday, a spokesman for Cullerton said in a statement that the redactions were justified by “an attorney general’s opinion, case law and discussions with the investigative authorities.” The spokesman said Wednesday he was not aware of WBEZ’s case being filed.
For more than a decade, public agencies in the state have readily released such records without the sort of redactions that Cullerton’s office made to the documents relating to Sandoval.
Earlier this year, city officials in Chicago quickly released records from the raid of powerful Ald. Edward Burke’s offices at City Hall. He has since been indicted on corruption charges.
Cullerton’s own office did not make substantial redactions earlier this year when officials gave WBEZ copies of documents in the investigations of another Democratic state senator, his distant relative Thomas Cullerton of Villa Park, and former Sen. Sam McCann, a Republican from Downstate Plainview.
Last week, agents lugged boxes of documents and computers from the state Capitol after raiding Sandoval’s office there. The feds also made visits to village halls in three southwest suburbs and to the northwest suburban offices of an asphalt magnate with deep ties to Sandoval.
Sandoval’s district includes the turf of powerful House Speaker and state Democratic Party Chairman Michael Madigan of Chicago. In July, WBEZ and the Better Government Association first reported that federal agents had raided the home of former Chicago Ald. Michael Zalewski, a longtime, close Madigan ally, and sought records pertaining to Madigan.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter at WBEZ. Dave McKinney covers state politics for WBEZ.
Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Sen.Cullerton’s office had redacted the names of five IDOT employees referenced in the search warrant.