"As Chi-Town's editorial staff is aware, the CHA would gladly produce inspection records in response to a properly submitted request for information under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act."
Those were the words of Chicago Housing Authority spokesman Matt Aguilar, in response to my post two weeks ago about the authority's refusal to comment on any aspect of Clarence Walker's death.
"Gladly produce inspection records?" Actually, the CHA didn't produce them at all.
Walker died one month ago after he fell down an elevator shaft at a Cabrini-Green building on 365 W. Oak St., a public-housing property maintained with taxpayer dollars.
Shortly afterward, his family filed a lawsuit against the authority, alleging that it failed to properly inspect and maintain the lift.
So when Aguilar declined to comment on Walker's death, or any of the authority's elevator-related policies, I submitted my request for inspection documents.
Aguilar assured our readers, also in response to my post, that producing the records "fully demonstrates that the CHA operates in a transparent and accountable manner."
Yesterday, my request for the records was denied.
Here's what I asked for in an Aug. 13 letter to Melli Holley, the authority's Freedom of Information officer:
- any public records related the death of Clarence Walker, 61, in a public-housing development at 365 W. Oak St.,
- any written policies of the Chicago Housing Authority related to elevator inspections and maintenance,
- any records of elevator inspections and maintenance at 365 W. Oak St.,
- any records of complaints related to elevators at 365 W. Oak St., and
- any other public records related to the death of Clarence Walker or elevator inspections and maintenance at the CHA.
You'll note that, in case the authority might block the release of any documents directly related to Walker's death, I also asked for other records related to elevator policies in general.
Well, the strategy didn't work.
I spoke with Holley yesterday morning, after I followed up with her to check on my request.
Holley said the authority would deny it because of the pending litigation.
She said the authority would cite section 5 ILCS 140/7(n) of the act, which exempts the authority from releasing:
Basically, it's a version of attorney-client privilege, an exemption I sought to pre-empt with my request for records generally related to elevator policies rather than just those directly related to Walker's death.
So I asked Holley why the authority could not release the more general documents.
Holley, who holds a J.D., said she could not get into "legal semantics" with me. She said this was a decision from the authority's legal counsel, in charge of the lawsuit it faces from Walker's survivor.
Pick an exemption, any exemption
A few hours later, Holley called me back and told me the authority would not use that exemption, but instead another one.
In a letter to me yesterday, Holley wrote that, "after careful review of your request, it has been determined that the request as it stands shall be denied pursuant to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act 5 ILCS 140/7(c)(iii). Specifically, there is litigation pending and disclosure would deprive the CHA the right to a fair trial."
And what does 5 ILCS 140/7(c)(iii) exempt from release?
The Daily News will appeal the CHA's decision to its chief executive officer, Lewis Jordan, as the Freedom of Information Act provides.
But for now, I wonder: When did the CHA pick its exemption? Was it before, or after, it decided not to release any of these documents?
I just want to know how an "accountable" and "transparent" agency works.