The state’s highest court today dealt city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson a setback in his legal battle to get unfettered access to city documents.
In a ruling released this morning, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Ferguson’s office does not have independent power to go to court to enforce subpoenas of city documents.
Instead, he must ask the Law Department controlled by the mayor to enforce those subpoenas. If the Law Department refuses, the dispute must be settled by the mayor.
The ruling stems back to a dispute between the inspector general’s office and former Mayor Richard Daley. Daley denied the inspector general full access to documents subpoenaed by the inspector general in a five-year probe of a no-bid contract given to a onetime Daley employee.
But the case has strong implications for Ferguson and current Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who during his campaign said that "any efforts to block the inspector general from getting information will not be tolerated."
Despite that statement, Emanuel’s top lawyer, city Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton, continued the fight to block Ferguson from going to court to enforce subpoenas.
In the original probe, Daley's lawyers invoked attorney-client privilege, saying parts of the documents denied the inspector general dealt with communications between employees and their city attorneys and thus could not be revealed.
Ferguson has contended that if his document requests can be denied because of attorney-client privilege when city attorneys are involved, and the mayor is the ultimate decider in such cases, the inspector general does not have real independence to root out waste, fraud and corruption.
But the high court did not address the issue of attorney-client privilege.
In 2009, the inspector general’s office filed the law suit, saying the inspector had the right to the full documents. The city, in turn, again invoked attorney client privilege, contended only the mayor’s top attorney had the right to enforce subpoenas and said it was up to the mayor to decide disputes between the Law Department and the inspector general’s office.
A trial court sided with the inspector general, but an appellate court reversed the ruling. That, in turn was appealed by city lawyers to the state Supreme Court.