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City Keeps Using Taxpayer Money To Fight CBS 2's FOIA Request On Racism, Harassment At Streets And San Yard

CHICAGO (CBS) -- F-O-I-A – those four letters, of course, stand for the Freedom of Information Act.

It is a tool that journalists - and anyone really - can use to get public records from the government.

For more than a year, CBS 2 has been asking for basic information from the City of Chicago.

The Illinois Attorney General even said the city should provide that information. Yet the city continues to refuse - using taxpayer resources to fight the request from CBS 2's Tim McNicholas.

Heidi McGee and her husband, Martell, are garbage truck drivers for the City of Chicago.

In the fall of 2020, we reported that Heidi's supervisor sent her a text containing the N-word while she was on the job.

McNicholas: "When you see this text, how does that make you feel today?"

McGee: "It's still very disturbing."

That supervisor, who is white, later told city investigators he forwarded it to her on accident.

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

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

We wanted to look into that back in 2020, but no one would talk to us at the Streets and Sanitation yard at 34th Street and Lawndale Avenue.

So we filed a public records request for any complaints of racism, harassment, or discrimination at that yard in the last five years. It turns out there are six complaints - but the city refuses to release them.

"It's a known history of the City of Chicago being the way the City of Chicago is; and being transparent, I think, is a good step toward destroying the culture," said Martell McGee.

So we asked the Illinois Attorney General's office to weigh in, and they requested that the city "provide Mr. McNicholas with copies of the responsive complaints."

Despite that, the city still refuses our request — and burns taxpayer resources to fight it. This month, they replied to the state again, arguing why they shouldn't release the records, writing that the records are "of a sexual or racial nature," and that disclosing them could invade employee privacy.

McNicholas: "Is this a violation of the Freedom of Information Act?"

Attorney Matt Topic: "Yes."

Topic is a lawyer who helps people fight the government for public records, including an independent journalist who sued the city for video of the Laquan MacDonald shooting.

"The city has a long history of illegally withholding records from the public when those records would be embarrassing to the mayor or would be embarrassing to people who run city departments," Topic said.

We'd like to ask city Human Resources Commissioner Christopher Own why his department won't release the records, but he won't respond to our interview requests. The city wrote to the state that the complaint details are "of a sexual or racial nature," and disclosing them could invade employees' privacy or deter other victims from speaking up.

"They had every opportunity to prove that, and they were unable to prove that," Topic said.

As for the man who sent that text, the city suspended him for a week and a half and then he returned to this facility - but he no longer communicates with Heidi McGee.

"I don't want to be in the same room or the same area he is in," said Heidi McGee.

Now she wonders, like us, how many other stories like hers are out there.

The Attorney General's letter is non-binding, so the city argues they still don't have to release the records.

Streets and San won't say what's in those records, but they did send us a statement saying they take diversity, equity, and inclusion seriously:

"The Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS) takes the city's policies on diversity, equity, and inclusion seriously. DSS forwards all claims the department receives to the proper channels for investigation in a timely and respectful manner, as per city rules and regulations," spokeswoman Mimi Simon said in an email.

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