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Attorney general says city broke the law in withholding public records on complaints of racism and harassment

Attorney general says city broke the law in withholding public records on complaints of racism and h 02:36

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The City of Chicago broke the law in refusing a CBS 2 public records request about racism and discrimination among city workers.

That's the assessment the Illinois Attorney General made in a rare binding opinion issued last week.

In other words, the city must release the records, or they could face penalties.

Morning Insider Tim McNicholas took us along on his quest for answers.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on transparency, with the slogan, "Bringing in the light."

In fact, she said a victory would earn her a mandate to clean up what she described as a "broken and corrupt political machine" at City Hall.

Lightfoot vowed to make city government "much more transparent and accountable for sure."

But for the majority of her time in office, City Hall has fought CBS 2's public records request for "any complaints of racism, harassment, or discrimination" at the Department of Streets and Sanitation yard at 34th Street and Lawndale Avenue.

Our quest for information started back in 2020, when a Black garbage truck driver named Heidi McGee got a text from a White supervisor containing the N word, infuriating McGee and her husband, who is also a Streets and Sanitation worker.

"I think other people have similar stories. I really do," Heidi McGee said.

"There's a culture of similar things that happened to us, as well as others, and most definitely worse," said Martell McGee.

For a year and a half, the city has refused to answer questions or comply with public records requests through the Freedom of Information Act. Even though the FOIA request pertains to the department of streets and sanitation, Human Resources is handling it.

"This is a particularly egregious violation," said public records attorney Matt Topic, who said the city's refusal to turn over the requested records violated state law.

"The city's position was baseless, and this is particularly important information under the Freedom of Information Act for the public to have access to," he said.

As it turns out, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul's office agrees. After CBS 2 asked, the attorney general's public access counselor issued a binding opinion — which only happens about 10 times a year — stating that the city "violated the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act."

That opinion is enforceable in court.

"I think it's very encouraging. It's a signal that this is very important information, and that the city's position was particularly unfounded," Topic said.

The binding opinion says the records contain "many general descriptions of alleged discrimination by City employees while on the job."

The city has argued that they can't release the complaints due to employee privacy concerns, but the attorney general's office said the city needs to release the records immediately.

We reached out to the city to ask whether they finally plan to comply with the law. The city in a statement says, "The Department of Human Resources is in receipt of the opinion, will evaluate the opinion, and will determine potential next steps."


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