Thursday, January 4, 2007

FOIA and Kabuki theater

God bless the Better Government Association in its lawsuit against Governor Rod Blagojevich to compel release of criminal subpoenas of his office.

The BGA is using as ammunition a legal opinion by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan that says the subpoenas are public information under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

This whole exercise is a bit of Kabuki theater. Madigan, with her party in control of the General Assembly and her father as House Speaker, ought to pass an amendment strengthening the FOIA law. Then she could file the lawsuit herself.

As it stands, FOIA is toothless, giving no governmental agency the right to enforce violations of the act. When Jim Ryan was Attorney General he attempted to pass such an amendment and got it through the House before Senate President James "Pate" Philip killed it in the upper chamber.

I had a discussion once with Daily Southtown columnist Phil Kadner about FOIA. A longtime advocate of stronger laws, Kadner hailed Madigan's appointment of a "public access counselor" who delivers advisory opinions on FOIA matters. I argued that while the step was better than nothing, it wouldn't be particularly effective.

I think the proof is that despite the existence of the public access counselor, the Blagojevich administration has been more hostile to FOIA than any other governor in recent Illinois history according to the reporters I talk to. The result is that he just refuses to turn over most documents he doesn't want reporters to see.

Madigan has been on the side of openness in the FOIA battle as have other AGs. I'd like to see her take her advocacy to the next level by championing FOIA reform.

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