Better Government Association Sues County Agency Over FOIA Roadblock

Cook County Recorder of Deeds makes it as difficult as possible to obtain public records under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act; the BGA says ‘enough is enough.’

Contacts:
Mary Frances O’Connor (312) 821-9026
Robert Herguth (312) 821-9030

CHICAGO—The Illinois Freedom of Information Act – a government-transparency law commonly known as "FOIA" – guarantees public access to documents in the possession of public agencies.

But the Cook County Recorder of Deeds office – the governmental agency that keeps land transaction records for Chicago and nearby suburbs – is violating FOIA by refusing to accept document requests by email, according to a lawsuit filed by the Better Government Association (BGA) on May 14, 2013.

State law is clear: public agencies must accept written FOIA requests through any reasonable method of delivery available to the agency. If an agency – and an agency’s designated "FOIA Officer" – has email accounts, then the public may convey a FOIA request through email.

The BGA did this on Feb. 27, 2013, submitting a FOIA request via email to the Recorder of Deeds’ FOIA Officer. The BGA was seeking copies of employment documents for an employee who had just resigned under fire, after the BGA and FOX 32 discovered her criminal conviction in a robbery scheme.

But the Recorder of Deeds FOIA Officer sent a letter back to the BGA through U.S. mail saying the agency "has a long-standing published policy of only accepting FOIA requests exclusively via mail or in person delivery."

The BGA believes that "policy" not only violates the letter and spirit of state law, it is needlessly costly (because of postage and printing expenses) and inefficient.

"It’s clear to us that the Recorder’s Office – led by Karen Yarbrough – is trying to make it as difficult as possible for the public and press to obtain information that’s rightfully ours," said BGA President and CEO Andy Shaw. "We’re tired of playing games. Enough is enough. Local government officials, Ms. Yarbrough included, need to understand they work for the public, not the other way around. Their records are our records."

The BGA is suing the Recorder of Deeds in Cook County Circuit Court. The BGA is, among other things, seeking to "enjoin [the] Defendant from automatically denying FOIA requests that are submitted by email" and "declare [the] Defendant’s denial of the BGA’s emailed FOIA request a willful and intentional violation of FOIA."

The BGA is being represented by Kirkland & Ellis LLP, a Chicago-based law firm that filed suit pro bono on the BGA’s behalf. Kirkland & Ellis has generously assisted the BGA with a number of initiatives in the pursuit of open and honest government.

This lawsuit represents just the latest ethical issue raised by the BGA about Ms. Yarbrough. In February, the BGA and FOX 32 aired a news story showing that Ms. Yarbrough had hired a family friend for a high-paying government job, despite a conviction related to a heist. That employee later resigned.

In 2011, the BGA discovered a private insurance company owned by Ms. Yarbrough – then a state legislator – ended up financially benefitting from a development project in Maywood that her husband, then the mayor of the western suburb, held sway over.

The Recorder of Deeds office is one of several county agencies the BGA believes should be eliminated through government consolidation.

The Better Government Association is a Chicago-based nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group that works for integrity, transparency and accountability in government by exposing corruption and inefficiency; identifying and advocating effective public policy; and engaging and mobilizing the electorate to achieve authentic and responsible reform.