WBEZ filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Cook County board president, alleging that officials illegally denied access to emails from Commissioner Bridget Gainer’s office.
The suit, filed on the station’s behalf by lawyer Matt Topic, alleges that Democratic County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s administration is violating the state’s open-records law.
The case centers on a request WBEZ sent to the county in July for official emails sent by Gainer or her aides.
The station specifically sought messages that made reference to Cause the Effect Chicago — a political effort founded by Gainer — or Off the Sidelines Chicago, which was the group’s original name.
A lawyer in Preckwinkle’s administration said Gainer found 3,000 emails that were responsive to the request. But the county has produced none of those documents.
Laura Lechowicz Felicione, the lawyer who handles records requests to Preckwinkle’s office, initially told WBEZ that officials would not comply with the request because it would be “unduly burdensome” to do so.
Preckwinkle’s office produced 88 emails that it said the administration has, but copies of those messages were heavily redacted.
To account for blacked-out sections of those messages, Lechowicz Felicione cited an exemption to the open-records law, which allows public officials to keep aspects of a “deliberative process” from public view.
That clause of Illinois law exempts the release of documents that are “preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed or policies or actions are formulated.”
But WBEZ’s lawsuit, which was filed in Cook County Circuit Court, argues that the redactions to those 88 emails also were made in violation of state law.
According to Cause the Effect Chicago’s website, the group “empowers women to effect change as activists, community leaders and political candidates.” Gainer is described as the group’s founder.
The organization’s political action committee received contributions totaling more than $22,000 in the three months ending Sept. 30, according to its latest filing with state elections authorities.
Gainer is a Democrat. Since 2010, she has represented a county board district that covers part of Chicago’s North and Northwest sides. She was re-elected to a third four-year term Tuesday without Republican opposition.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ. Follow him at @dmihalopoulos.