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Cook County State's Attorney's Office sued for public records

Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Crain's Chicago Business
by Claire Bushey

A Chicago nonprofit sued the Cook County State's Attorney's Office today, alleging it has routinely violated Illinois' open-records law.

The Chicago Justice Project, a research organization that analyzes data from criminal justice agencies, is seeking a court order to force the prosecutor's office to turn over records it has sought for years under the state's Freedom of Information Act.

The office has "a pattern and practice of circumventing the requirements of FOIA," according to the lawsuit, filed in Circuit Court of Cook County.

It's the latest blow for State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, who's under fire from critics for taking a year to file charges in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald. Protesters have called for her resignation, and today Cook County commissioners asked Alvarez to appear before the board's criminal justice committee to answer questions about her handling of police misconduct cases.

Cook County State's Attorney spokeswoman Lisa Gordon said the office had not yet had a chance to review the suit. In response to the county board's request, Alvarez said in a statement that she would "not participate in a sideshow orchestrated by (Commissioners) John Fritchey and Chuy Garcia. These men have the right to campaign for the candidate of their choice, but they do not have the right to demand that I play a role in their political theatre."

Fritchey and Garcia are backing two of Alvarez's opponents in the March 15 Democratic primary for state's attorney.LOOKING FOR DATA

The data Chicago Justice Project seeks could reveal long-term trends and patterns in prosecution, said Tracy Siska, the nonprofit's executive director.

"The big question is whether the actual filing of the suit brings the state's attorney's office to the table," he said, adding, "We are not here for a token victory. They're going to have to commit to opening up, forever."

The lawsuit has its roots in the Chicago Justice Project's attempt five years ago to collect data on sexual assaults in Chicago. Following an arrest by the Chicago Police Department, the state's attorney's office reviews whether to bring felony charges. Chicago Justice Project requested demographic information on victims and suspects and information on where and how the crime occurred, to determine whether charges were less likely to be filed in certain cases. The state's attorney's office refused to release it, even after the Illinois Attorney General's office ruled that it should, the lawsuit says.

The organization filed five other FOIAs between January 2014 and July, none of which yielded a single document, the lawsuit says.

Maryam Judar, executive director of the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center, said that while sometimes a public body truly believes its records should be exempt from disclosure, “I find that to be a more rare situation” than cases where the agency fights the request to cover a mistake, wrongdoing or simply because it objects to the law.

Lawyers Paul Steadman and Daniel Simon in the Chicago office of DLA Piper are representing the Chicago Justice Project. The case has been assigned to Judge Peter Flynn.

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