IL Public Officials’ Private Emails, Text Messages Now Subject to FOIA

By Benjamin Cox on August 21, 2020 at 9:59am

A photo of 1 of the 2700 pages of emails the Emmanuel Administration released in a settlement with the BGA in December 2016

Public officials are no longer shielded by private emails or phones to conduct public business. The First District Court of Illinois agreed with the Better Government Association, a Chicago-based nonprofit, that an elected official or public worker cannot keep messages about their public dealings secret by using a private email earlier this month.

In the court ruling written by Judge Cynthia Cobbs, she says that the e-mails and text messages from those officials’ personal accounts are ‘in the possession of’ a public body within the meaning of a freedom of information request. Cobbs’ ruling also says that whatever is written in those private communications are usually used and prepared for use in the public body anyway.

The BGA, represented by law firm Loevy and Loevy, filed a suit in Circuit Court in 2017 after the City of Chicago denied its Freedom of Information Act Request for private communications regarding lead in the city’s drinking water. The suit resulted in thousands of then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s private communications with lobbyists, other officials, even Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner being released to the public. The city soon banned private communications under city statute.

The appellate court ruling, barring another case in another Illinois district court, sets the standard for all public officials in the state. If public officials refuse to comply, they can be held in contempt of court by the Illinois Attorney General’s office.