Illinois' leading lawmakers privately circulated their own proposal for a new public records law Wednesday that would essentially gut months of work by interest groups attempting to strengthen the state's notoriously weak public access to government records.
While supporters of a stronger open records measure scrambled to recover, a House committee went ahead with two other ethics proposals. One would make public some internal probes of state employee misconduct, and the other would fire hundreds of patronage employees hired by two previous disgraced governors.
The newest draft version of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act was drawn by staff of House and Senate leadership and circulated Wednesday to certain lobby groups, with less than two weeks to act before lawmakers go home. Although House Speaker Michael Madigan's staff circulated the redrawn bill, aides to his daughter, Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan, said she was taken by surprise.
The new proposal would demolish the attorney general's efforts to seek broad and binding authority to settle records disputes. It would also leave largely intact broad exemptions in the public records law most often used by public officials to keep secret the inner workings of government.
Angry representatives of the Illinois Press Association, which represents newspapers including the Chicago Tribune, blasted the proposal as an abandonment of reform promises made following the corruption arrest of Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
"Only in Illinois would this be defined as reform or transparency," said Don Craven, the association's acting director and a 1st Amendment lawyer who has represented the Tribune in public records lawsuits.
"It does nothing to open Illinois government at any level to the citizens," Craven said. "If the bill moves forward in this fashion, it will be our recommendation that the Press Association oppose it. ... I'll take what we've got."
Just Friday, the attorney general's office and Gov. Pat Quinn's reform commission agreed on a joint proposal. It would give the attorney general broad authority to settle disputes, establish criminal penalties for public officials who willfully violate the law, and attempt to narrow exemptions used to keep secret such records as police reports and school superintendents' contracts.
Open records advocates who were lukewarm about the attorney general's proposal said the legislative leadership plan is far worse. It would eliminate the criminal penalties and limit the attorney general's authority to settle disputes only to agencies overseen by the governor. The attorney general would have no authority over local governments -- from school boards to the City of Chicago.
In addition, it leaves intact -- and in places broadens -- the sweeping exemptions most often used by public officials to deny public records.
Steve Brown, spokesman for the House speaker, would not discuss the specific provisions of the newest proposal.
"These are preliminary discussions and nothing has been finalized," Brown said.
Brown said he has been told the 75-page proposal may contain drafting errors and it is too early to draw conclusions from it. "I don't know how these groups jump to these conclusions, but that's the way they are," he said.
Cara Smith, a top aide to the attorney general who has spearheaded that office's efforts to rewrite the records law, said her boss is disappointed and "strenuously opposes" the changes.
"She has and will continue to work to reinstate the bill to reflect the months of work we have done," Smith said.
Lawmakers did advance two other ethics measures to the full House.
Final reports of state inspectors general -- the offices that investigate allegations of misconduct by state employees -- would for the first time be made public, under a bill approved Wednesday by the Executive Committee. Currently, state law forbids the release of such reports.
The measure is limited only to those investigations where state employees were found guilty of misconduct that carries penalties ranging from a three-day suspension to termination.
The committee also approved a measure that would remove about 750 with state jobs or appointments doled out under Blagojevich and former Gov. George Ryan in the last 10 years.
Speaker Madigan has made no secret of his desire to oust John Filan, Blagojevich's budget guru whom Quinn has kept, but the speaker said he was reviewing whether the new bill's wording covered Filan.
Tribune reporter John Chase contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun