The Cooley Innocence Project like all innocence projects use FOIA the Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents from the government about the cases they are looking into. FOIA us nearly universally ignored by government agencies and they often only reluctantly turn over information and then often don't provide complete information. This article documents abuses in Illinois.
Our Opinion: FOIA needs reform -- now
THE STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER
Posted Nov 12, 2008 @ 12:07 AM
Last update Nov 12, 2008 @ 07:05 AM
HOW MANY STORIES have to be written about Illinois’ broken Freedom of Information Act before Attorney General Lisa Madigan proposes an overhaul?
The latest examples of FOIA abuse can be found in State Journal-Register reporter Bruce Rushton’s Sunday story about Sangamon County Sheriff Neil Williamson charging the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project $700 for audio and video recordings.
The group wants recordings of police interviews with Donald “Goose” Johnston, whose testimony helped convict Thomas McMillen of murdering Melissa Koontz in 1989.
WILLIAMSON CLAIMED that State’s Attorney John Schmidt’s office advised him that he could charge that much, but an attorney with Schmidt’s office said Williamson “may be somewhat misinformed on that issue because I did not discuss amounts and how much it should be.”
No doubt embarrassed by the public attention drawn to this outrage, Williamson has cut the cost to the Innocence Project to $37.78.But apparently that rate will only apply to people who are savvy enough to cite the law. Chief Deputy Tony Sacco told us that those who mention FOIA in their request will get documents at actual reproduction cost while those who don’t will continue to be charged the standard fee. In the case of the Innocence Project, that totaled $50 per CD and $25 per cassette tape.
We’re concerned that it’s this hard for a police agency to understand the one part of FOIA that’s pretty clear. Does the sheriff think he’s operating a used-car lot over there? Mention the FOIA law and get 94 percent off your next documents request! What a bargain!
Agencies cannot just charge whatever they feel like. State law bars them from charging to compile information. It only allows charging for the actual cost of reproducing the records.
THE INNOCENCE PROJECT has also been trying to obtain evidence for two years from the Illinois State Police in the murder of Karyn Slover. It wants records on an unidentified fingerprint found inches from the blood of Slover. Slover’s husband and his parents were convicted of murdering her in 1996.
State police claim the group can get the records through a court order. The Innocence Project argues it should not have to go to court every time it wants a record.
We make no judgment on the merits of the cases being reviewed by the Innocence Project, but we agree that it should not take a court order to get the records.
Therein lies the problem. The General Assembly has gummed up the FOIA law with so many exemptions, it’s nearly impossible to interpret with any clarity which records are subject to it.
The attorney general has received some well-deserved accolades for her work trying to open up government under the current law. Her public-access office, designed to help citizens get access to public records, was a welcome innovation — five years ago.
A LOT OF TIME has passed since then. It’s been six years since Madigan campaigned on a promise to reform the law. It’s been 19 months since this newspaper’s award-winning series, “Request Denied,” showed how the public — not just pesky newspaper reporters — is not being served by a toothless and loophole-laden law. It’s been 14 months since Madigan told the Illinois Press Association, “Let me be clear: I am committed to legislatively reforming the Freedom of Information Act.”
We can’t help but notice the calendar. Campaigns for the 2010 gubernatorial election are starting up, and Madigan is oft-mentioned as a candidate. Other than President-elect Barack Obama, she is the state’s most popular politician and has a bank full of political capital to spend. It also can’t hurt that her father is the state House speaker.
Hopefully, Madigan intends to propose something in the next legislative session before trying to climb the political ladder. Because it would be hard to believe a promise from Madigan that she would fix the law as governor after doing nothing legislatively for six years.