In a state notorious for secrecy, court offers pleasant surprise

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Even those hoping for the best were surprised by an Illinois appellate court’s decision in Gekas v. Williamson.

In Gekas, the appeals court was asked to decide whether a law enforcement agency’s internal affairs records are exempt from disclosure under Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act. In light of the number of loopholes in the act before it was amended on Aug. 17 — in recent years, both the Better Government Association and the National Freedom of Information Coalition gave the state F’s for transparency — open-government advocates following the case had little reason for optimism.

In a 3-0 decision issued on July 20, however, the 4th District Appellate Court of Illinois held that the act required the records’ disclosure. In a sweeping opinion, the court concluded that documents regarding complaints about a public employee’s job performance and investigations of those complaints “are not exempt from disclosure insomuch as they relate to the public duties of an employee or official of that public body.”

The dispute in Gekas stems from a traffic stop. John Gillette, a Sangamon County deputy sheriff, pulled over dentist G. Mark Gekas on Aug. 22, 2006. At the time of the stop, Gekas claimed he was in agony from a kidney stone and on his way to a hospital emergency room. According to Gekas, Gillette nevertheless stuck a pistol in Gekas’ face, called him an obscene name and handcuffed him to the steering wheel of his own car.

Gekas complained in writing to the Sangamon County Sheriff. After an investigation, the sheriff concluded Gillette had done nothing wrong. Dissatisfied with this result, Gekas requested under the Illinois FOIA all complaints that citizens had made against Gillette and all records relevant to those complaints.

The sheriff denied Gekas’ request in its entirety, stating that all of the requested records were part of Gillette’s personnel file and thus exempt under the act. After the department denied Gekas’ administrative appeal, the dentist sued to obtain the records.

During the trial court proceedings, the sheriff’s department delivered 27 investigative files regarding Gillette to the judge, who reviewed them in private. Citing the act’s provision that “The disclosure of information that bears on the public duties of public employees and officials shall not be considered an invasion of personal privacy,” Sangamon County Circuit Judge Kenneth R. Deihl concluded that Gillette’s privacy interests depended on whether a complaint against him had been deemed meritorious.

Disclosure of meritorious complaints, Deihl said, would not invade Gillette’s privacy, as long as the complaints were similar to that filed by Gekas. According to the judge, however, Gillette’s privacy interest outweighed any interest Gekas had in complaints that had been found to be without merit. Deihl therefore ordered the release of four of the 27 files.

Neither party was happy with the judge’s ruling. Gekas appealed the decision as to the 23 withheld files, and the sheriff’s department appealed the ruling as to the four others.

Parsing several sections of the act, the appeals court concluded that records concerning a public employee or official are exempt from disclosure only if releasing the documents would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy or interfere with a pending administrative enforcement proceeding.

The court then noted that, while Section 7(1)(b) of the act protects personal information and identities of confidential sources on privacy grounds, it also states that an employee’s privacy is not invaded if the information bears on his or her public duties.

In this case, the appeals court said, the investigative records were not like performance evaluations or other documents “generated for Gillette’s personal use.” Moreover, whether Gillette “used excessive force or otherwise committed misconduct during an investigation or arrest is not his private business.”

“Internal-affairs files that scrutinize what a police officer did by the authority of his or her badge,” the court said, “do not have the personal connotations of an employment application, a tax form, or a request for medical leave. Not every scrap of paper that enters a personnel file necessarily is personal information.”

The appeals court then rejected the sheriff’s department’s argument that the reports were protected because they were administrative enforcement records. The court noted each of the investigations had been concluded and no evidence existed that release would interfere with any pending matter.

Applying these principles to the records at issue, the court held that all 27 files must be released, with any exempt information redacted. The court said the trial judge’s distinction between founded and unfounded complaints lacked any support in the act and could lead to absurd results.

“If the Act allowed a public body to deny access to complaints that it deemed to be unfounded,” the court observed, “defeating the Act would be as easy as declaring a complaint to be unfounded.”

The appeals court also found that Deihl’s distinction between complaints like and unlike Gekas’ was “misguided” because all of the files related to Gillette’s performance of his public duties.

While the reach of the ruling in Gekas remains to be seen, public bodies, employees and officials alarmed by the appeals court’s holding can take some comfort in the court’s apparent acknowledgement that evaluations and the identities of persons who provide information after being promised confidentiality remain exempt under the act.

At the same time, those pleased by the ruling can claim considerable momentum in the battle to open Illinois government. The decision in Gekas comes just two months after the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in Stern v. Wheaton-Warrenville Community Unit School District 200 that employment contracts of public employees must be disclosed, even if they are maintained in the employee’s personnel file, and a month before Illinois comprehensively reformed its FOIA to significantly enhance public access to information.

Fortunately for the public, nothing in the FOIA amendments is likely to threaten the favorable precedents in Stern and Gekas. After decades of darkness, it appears the sun finally is beginning to shine on public bodies across Illinois.

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