BGA Complaints Prompt City To Peel Away Some Redactions In Rahm Emails

Chicago relents on some material it had blacked out from view on recently released personal emails that Mayor Rahm Emanuel had used to conduct public business. Much of the newly exposed material appears a far cry from the definition of what qualifies for an exemption.

(Jared Rutecki)

Responding to a challenge from the Better Government Association, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has hit undelete on blacked out portions of some of the 3,200 pages of emails it released recently from the mayor’s personal accounts.

Much of the fresh material includes terse comments and questions to subordinates from Emanuel, sometimes innocuous and sometimes directly business-like.

In one passage written by Emanuel while in China on a trade mission, he directed public relations spin over a major city development project to emphasize his role and downplay that of an influential alderman.

The initial email disclosures in December 2016 came in response to a settlement of a BGA lawsuit that argued Emanuel had done an end run around state open records law by using his personal email accounts to conduct public business.

Many of Emanuel’s conversations were produced in their entirety by the city. But others contained portions both short and long that were redacted, making it sometimes difficult to follow the thread of emailed discussions.

The city initially said any conversation fragments it withheld were exempt from disclosure under open records law, in part, because they contained preliminary conversations or opinions about policies or actions still in the formation stage.

But BGA protests led the administration to relent on some of those initial redactions, and the watchdog group is still evaluating the remaining redactions for further challenges. As it is, much of the newly exposed material appears a far cry from the definition of what qualifies for an exemption.

Interact with the documents below. Select, pull in either direction and you can compare with the original what was hidden under some of the redactions.

 

Take, for example, that November 2015 email Emanuel sent from half a world away to then top aide David Spielfogel in Chicago. Back home, the Chicago Plan Commission had just given the green light for construction of the 1,200 foot Wanda Vista Tower, partly financed by Chinese investment, in the downtown ward of Ald. Brendan Reilly (42) who had recently pushed for it.

“Can we tie Wanda planning approval to my trip not part of Reilly effort,” Emanuel asked, forgoing question marks. “Why allow false impressions to exist.”

“Agree. Incredible,” Spielfogel wrote back. “Already flagged and am working on it.”

Developers of the high-rise project have been significant contributors to Emanuel, including giving more than $63,000 to his re-election campaign in 2015. 

Asked to clarify the mayor’s email comments, Emanuel spokesman Matt McGrath said he was “not going to try to interpret what someone wrote in an email more than a year ago.”

The back and forth on the skyscraper was part of an email chain that began with a message to the mayor from David Plouffe, a former political strategist for President Barack Obama who now is a top official for ride-sharing transportation giant Uber.

Plouffe, who at the time was not registered to lobby city officials in Chicago, asked Emanuel to fix problems with fees and signage that Uber claimed it was experiencing with a new agreement to allow the firm’s drivers to begin taking passengers to and from city airports and McCormick Place.

“I hope we can resolve these issues before the holiday,” Plouffe wrote, referring to Thanksgiving which at the time was just days away.

Emanuel responded by directing Plouffe to work out the problems with Spielfogel and another mayoral aide. “Impossible to address from China,” added Emanuel, who later in the chain went on to advise Spielfogel about handling the Wanda Tower issue.

An Uber spokeswoman acknowledged that Plouffe was not properly registered as a lobbyist when he made his outreach to Emanuel.

“We take compliance seriously. We’re always working to ensure registrations are accurate and kept up-to-date, but in this case there was an oversight,” said spokeswoman Molly Spaeth.

Many of the conversations initially redacted but later restored dwelt on how to manage press coverage of the mayor and his administration.

On June 8, 2011, just weeks into Emanuel’s first term, his then spokeswoman Chris Mather emailed the mayor to ask whether new police superintendent Garry McCarthy should be made available to take press questions after a City Council meeting. That portion of the email was made public in December.

What was not, however, was Emanuel’s response which was simply, “How’s Garry doing?” It is not clear why the city initially concluded that such pleasantries should be exempt from disclosure under open records law.

Mather’s answer to that question, which focused on keeping McCarthy focused on a pre-approved message while talking to media, was also originally withheld by the city. “Great,” Mather answered. “Just met with him. He understands the 1,2, 3. Knows that (sic) headline should be and what it cannot be.”

Messaging was also at the core of other emails initially replete with redactions.  On June 30, 2015, press aide Tarrah Cooper sent Emanuel a message that began with a cheery, “Good Morning Mayor,” adding that what followed was a list of so-called talking points Emanuel should bring up concerning a hike in the minimum wage during a radio interview that day.

The actual talking points, however, were redacted from the original email release. The five-point list, which began with a declaration that “nobody who works in the City of Chicago should ever have to raise their children in poverty,” was indistinguishable from positions Emanuel has uttered multiple other times in public.

Another partially redacted email from July 2011 involved a rundown of the days’ events the mayor received from his first chief of staff, Theresa Mintle. “All is good,” Mintle began before discussing groundwork being laid for a NATO summit in Chicago the following year as well as briefing Emanuel on a beating in the Lakeview Neighborhood.

Blacked out in the city’s original disclosure of the email was another section in which Mintle related in disparaging terms what happened in a meeting with Chicago Teacher’s Union President Karen Lewis, with whom Emanuel has frequently sparred. Mintle expressed surprise that Lewis did not bring up a dispute over a cancelled 4 percent pay hike for teachers. 

“MTg (sic) with Karen Lewis is a waste of time,” Mintle reported. “She arrived in a loud Hawaiian shirt and didn’t raise the 4%issue (sic).”

Emanuel responded to Mintle’s comments, though his words were redacted by the city in its initial email release and remained blacked out even after Mintle’s unflattering description Lewis was ultimately disclosed.

 

The unredacted emails have been added to the complete document and can be read below. Click on the link at the bottom left of the document to search the emails.