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Tribune wins settlement over city treasurer’s firing records

The Chicago Tribune has obtained a potentially incriminating letter alleging that workers were fired from City Treasurer Melissa Conyers-Erwin’s office two years ago after they refused to engage in alleged illegal and unethical conduct.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raul’s office handed the Tribune the victory after months of fighting Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s legal team, which argued the letter should be kept secret.

This week, Raul’s office issued a “binding opinion” saying the city of Chicago “wrongfully refused” to release a letter the city received from a private attorney representing the fired employees.

Tribune Executive Editor Mitch Pugh said, “We are pleased that the attorney general has been clear and forthright with this binding decision. We continue to be troubled by the city’s unwillingness to follow both the spirit and the letter of the law.”

“This is far from the first time we’ve seen this administration’s blatant disregard for the public’s right to know,” Pugh said. “However, we will continue to hold the city accountable to the taxpayers it serves and the laws it is sworn to uphold. I would like to think that now the city will do the right and legal thing, but we are ready to continue this fight if necessary.”

In September, Cook County Judge ruled in favor of the tribune that the Lightfoot administration improperly withheld records requested by the news organization about allegations of misconduct by high-ranking Chicago fire officials and separate records related to state and federal allegations of discrimination and harassment involving the city.

As for the city treasurer, a city spokesman said the opinion had been received and would be reviewed.

Through a series of Freedom of Information Act requests, the Tribune sought to obtain the letter obtained from the private attorney from the city, and Raul’s ruling Tuesday, which is binding, said the city’s refusal to provide it “violates Freedom of Information Act requirements.” The attorney general’s office said the mandatory findings have the force of law, and the state agency must comply or go to district court within 35 days of the finding.

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Conyers-Erwin, an associate of Lightfoot’s, claims the allegations of misconduct in her office are false, saying she fired employees because she wanted to put the office in a different direction.

Tiffany Harper, former chief of staff to the treasurer, previously the email states to the city’s ethics officer that she had “no doubt that our firings were related to our refusal to engage in illegal and unethical conduct.” Harper did not elaborate on her allegations in the email or specify who might be the subject of her complaint.

Harper and Ashley Evans, former head treasurer, settled their complaints for $100,000, with the city contributing $41,000 to each and their attorney receiving $18,000. They were among the four dismissed employees of the treasurer.

Tribune City Hall reporter Gregory Pratt filed a series of requests under the state Freedom of Information Act asking for emails about the controversy.

When he was denied the private attorney’s letter, Pratt turned to the attorney general’s office’s public access consultant and in July received an initial nonbinding determination that the city must release the letter. But the city refused.

In September, Pratt asked the attorney general’s office for a binding ruling because the city “has already demonstrated its disregard for the AG’s non-binding ruling on this matter,” according to a copy of the reporter’s written request.

The city argued that the letter from the fired workers’ attorney was part of privileged settlement negotiations and is exempt under the Freedom of Information Act and barred by various rules of evidence and discovery in lawsuits.

Sided with the Tribune, the attorney general’s office said the city’s arguments did not apply and that the letter was not exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

The attorney general’s office also rejected the city’s argument about the rules of evidence and discovery, saying those rules don’t apply in the matter and don’t override the public’s “legitimate right to information under the Freedom of Information Act.”

“Accordingly,” Raoult’s office concluded, “this city is ordered to take immediate and appropriate action to comply with this judgment by providing Mr. Pratt with a copy of the response letter.”



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