U of I email scandal shows need for FOIA reform

By Jeffrey Schwab
Illinois Policy

University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise resigned abruptly on Aug. 6 citing “external issues.” One day later, the university released hundreds of pages of emails from the personal email accounts of Wise and other university administrators.

The emails suggest that Wise intentionally conducted university business using her personal email address because she thought, wrongly, that doing so would prevent such emails from being released in response to Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests. Among the subjects discussed by Wise in these emails were the rehiring of James Kilgore, a former 1970s radical and convicted felon; a proposal to build a new medical school for the Urbana-Champaign campus even though the university already has a medical school in Chicago; and a lawsuit filed by Professor Steven Salaita against the university after it rescinded Salaita’s job offer because of anti-Israel tweets he had sent from his personal Twitter account.

Wise was slated to receive a $400,000 bonus after resigning, but the university’s Board of Trustees rejected Wise’s bonus after widespread public criticism. However, Wise may still continue to be employed as a professor and earn a salary of $300,000.

Wise’s attempt to hide information subject to FOIA by using her personal email address was wrong, morally and legally. It was morally wrong because the public has a right to know what government officials are doing with its tax dollars. It was legally wrong because, as an Illinois appellate court has ruled, the law requires government officials to disclose messages from any email account they use to discuss public business.

On Jan. 1 it became a class-4 felony to knowingly conceal, without lawful authority and with the intent to defraud, any public record. If Wise used her personal email account after Jan. 1 in order to conceal public records, she may have violated Illinois law.

Unfortunately, government officials often do everything they can to prevent the public from obtaining public records. And it is likely that Wise is not the only Illinois official to use a private email account for this purpose.

Governments and government agencies should adopt and rigorously enforce policies that prohibit officials from using their personal email addresses to conduct government business.

The General Assembly should take steps to prevent this behavior by amending Illinois’ FOIA to clarify that government business conducted by a government official using a personal email account is subject to FOIA and that any official who uses personal email in an attempt to thwart information requests under FOIA will have to pay the attorneys’ fees and costs incurred in obtaining those records. The General Assembly should also clarify that it is a crime to use personal email with the intent to avoid producing information subject to FOIA.

These proposals are consistent with FOIA’s goal of providing full and complete information regarding the affairs of government. They make clear that government officials cannot hide public records using their personal email addresses and would punish those officials for failing to disclose such records. Instituting these changes would benefit the people of Illinois by providing more information about the way government affairs are conducted.

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