By John O’Connor
AP Political Writer
SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration is forcing state lawmakers to use the public-records law to get emails regarding a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy.
Illinois Public Health Director Nirav Shah told a joint House-Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee that his agency denied Senate committee chairman Tom Cullerton’s demand for communication about the crisis under an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act.
The Democratic-led committee is reviewing the Republican administration’s handling of the summer 2015 spread of Legionnaires’ disease at the veterans’ home, which returned in 2016 and 2017. It’s contributed to the deaths of 13 residents — 12 in 2015 and one last fall — and sickened dozens more. It’s a respiratory illness caused by bacteria in water vapor that is inhaled.
Shah and Veterans’ Affairs Director Erica Jeffries promised to turn over emails discussing the outbreak when Cullerton requested them at a Jan. 9 hearing. Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat, said he followed up with a reminder note to Shah on Jan. 18. Shah considered the reminder a FOIA request.
“The FOIA statute describes a process that any public body is to go through regardless of the requestor of that information and we are following that process,” Shah said.
Shah’s agency denied the request, using a FOIA exception for “overly broad” requests that would be “unduly burdensome” on the agency. He’s invited Cullerton to narrow the scope of what he’s seeking.
“I didn’t realize that as a senator, I had to file a full FOIA request for an agency that the General Assembly is responsible for doing an appropriation on,” Cullerton said.
No public body is obligated to follow FOIA. The preamble to the law states a presumption that all government records are public. The law exists to ensure that taxpayers have recourse to get public records from reticent government bodies.
“We’re asking you to answer a request to fix a problem where not just one person died … 13 people died on your watch and you didn’t fix it,” said Sen. Michael Hastings, a Tinley Park Democrat. “And you want to play hide the ball?”
Hillside Democratic Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch demanded, “We need those emails, and we need them now.”
“There seems to be some type of cover-up,” Welch later suggested.
“Your assumption that there is a cover-up at play is 150-thousand percent unfounded,” a defiant Shah responded. “It is totally rejected”
Committee members were also flummoxed that Jeffries did not follow through on a promise last month to provide them with what turned out was a 2016 consultants’ report about replacing the Quincy home’s plumbing with new piping less conducive to harboring Legionella bacteria.
Jeffries said she didn’t recall making that promise but Rauner’s office produced on Tuesday an updated review by the consultant, which Capital Development Board Director Amy Romano said is expanded over the 2016 edition.
In response to a Jan. 12 FOIA request from The Associated Press for information on all proposed capital construction projects at the state’s four veterans’ homes for the past three years, the Capital Development Board indicated it had withheld as exempt “a report that provides recommendations and cost estimates to various options for a capital project at a Veterans’ Home.”
It’s unclear if that’s the report Jeffries referenced.
Democrats questioned why the administration took no action at the time. Jeffries said federal health regulators did not recommend plumbing replacement then, something Rauner said last month he will do after living at the home for a week.
Sen. Cristina Castro, an Elgin Democrat, demanded to see the original report. Romano said she would “look into” providing it. The Associated Press has appealed the CDB’s FOIA denial to the state’s public access counselor in the attorney general’s office.