Better Government Association Sues Maywood for Refusing to Release Subpoena

Lawsuit alleges village government violated state’s open records law by failing to provide a copy; this marks second legal fight against municipality in three months.

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

CHICAGO—In the interest of furthering public-sector transparency and accountability, the Better Government Association sued the Village of Maywood today for refusing to release a grand jury subpoena in its possession.

The lawsuit, filed Aug. 21 in Cook County Circuit Court, accuses Maywood’s municipal government of violating the Illinois Freedom of Information Act – a state law commonly known as "FOIA" that guarantees public access to all public records, except in limited circumstances – by failing to turn over the subpoena.

"Maywood officials have a documented history of playing games and hiding public information," said BGA President and CEO Andy Shaw. "We’re tired of it. The public is entitled to know how a local government is being managed, or mismanaged, and whether corruption is involved, and this subpoena may help us assess that."

"It’s worth noting we’re not the only ones saying the subpoena should be released – the Illinois attorney general’s office issued an opinion saying the same thing – but Maywood still hasn't budged," Shaw said. "Hopefully this lawsuit will help officials there see the light."

The origin of the suit goes back to 2010, when FOX Chicago requested a copy of the subpoena from Maywood under FOIA but was denied. The news outlet appealed to the attorney general’s "public access counselor," which issued a written opinion this past March siding with FOX. However, that opinion was non-binding, and Maywood still refused to release the document.

Meantime, FOX and the BGA began collaborating on research into Maywood’s municipal operation, and as an outgrowth of that partnership the BGA sought a copy of the subpoena in April. Village officials refused that FOIA request, saying in a written response that withholding the subpoena was necessary to protect law enforcement personnel and ensure the integrity of an "ongoing criminal investigation."

The village’s letter also noted "Grand Jury proceedings are secret."

However, the BGA and other news organizations are routinely provided copies of subpoenas upon request, and in 2007 the BGA successfully sued state government to obtain copies of federal subpoenas that then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to keep secret.

What’s more, as the new lawsuit asserts, Maywood’s reasons for withholding the subpoena don’t hold water under state law, which spells out when a public agency may or may not keep a public document from public view.

The new BGA lawsuit was filed pro bono by the Chicago-based law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP.

"We are happy to continue to assist the BGA in furthering its mission of government transparency, including through litigation when necessary," said Kirkland & Ellis attorney Matthew Topic, who has represented the BGA and others in numerous FOIA disputes and provides FOIA presentations to the public through the BGA’s "Citizen Watchdog" trainings.

Kirkland is representing several Maywood residents in another pro bono FOIA lawsuit that sought, among other things, records of credit card expenses by local government officials. The village initially denied such records existed, even though the then-village manager had taxpayer-funded credit cards in his name.

Kirkland also successfully sued the village on the BGA’s behalf last spring when the village tried dragging its feet in turning over records related to the unsolved murder of Maywood Police Officer Tom Wood. (The BGA teamed up with FOX Chicago’s Dane Placko on a detailed expose on the case. It is featured in the current issue of Chicago magazine.)

The new BGA lawsuit can be accessed here.

The Better Government Association is a Chicago-based non-profit, non-partisan 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.