Would having access to the correspondence of House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, shed light on his handling of sexual harassment allegations by associates?
We don’t know — and it’s designed that way because the documents of Madigan, like all Illinois lawmakers, are exempt from the state Freedom of Information Act.
The legislation, enacted in 1984, is a critical tool to ensure our public bodies are transparent and that, to quote the act, “all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts and policies of those who represent them as public officials and public employees.”
That sounds good, but the General Assembly has elected to exclude one noteworthy group from disclosure rules — lawmakers themselves. The argument is legislators deal with sensitive constituent issues and share draft legislation that are negotiating documents. (Congress has a similar exemption and cites similar logic.)
That means a citizen can get, say, five years’ worth of internal emails of the local township cemetery board, the calendar of Gov. Bruce Rauner and any other documents related public business, but can’t see any paperwork for our elected citizen legislature.
For Madigan, that also means all correspondence is exempt for his two high-profile positions — as speaker, which he’s held since 1983, and as head of the state Democratic party, his position since 1998.
Such a blank exemption bars the public from getting a full picture about what Madigan knew and when he knew it about the allegations. In one, a political consultant is accused of sending sexual text messages to a female staffer. Another consultant was removed because of inappropriate behavior involving a candidate in 2016, Madigan’s office said.
What’s not clear, at least not yet, is why Madigan took so long to take action. Only recently, after an embarrassing couple of weeks, did Madigan appoint an independent firm to investigate and he asked U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, Comptroller Susana Mendoza and state Rep. Carol Ammons to start a statewide conversation about women in the party.
“We haven’t done enough,” he said. “I take responsibility for that.”
There is no reason Illinois has such a wide FOIA loophole. The General Assembly should be treated just like every other elected body. There are very logical reasons for exemptions, but a comprehensive exclusion with no wiggle room is not in the spirit of a genuinely transparent form of government.
We in the media like FOIA for obvious reasons, but it’s equally important to any citizen who just wants to see how those we elect are doing their jobs. If something must be shielded, lawmakers should have to say why.