Illinois lacks sharing of public information

By The Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Gov. Rod Blagojevich took office promising a new era of open government. He talked about weekly press briefings and a budget-making process that would be open to the public.

Instead, his administration has clamped down on sharing public information. It refuses to release government documents. It has defied the attorney general’s legal opinions and punished people suspected of cooperating with reporters.

In denying requests under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, the administration has sometimes changed its explanations and cited out-of-state court rulings that the attorney general says don’t apply here. It even has suggested the law raises constitutional questions.

One Blagojevich agency clamped down after information about state contracts and audits was released to the public. Letters written by then-Secretary of Transportation Timothy Martin show that two employees were disciplined with transfers to new jobs because officials suspected they had tipped off The Associated Press about specific documents to request.

Many states have tightened public access to documents in recent years out of concern over terrorism and other issues. A nationwide review by The Associated Press found that states have passed more than 600 laws restricting access since Sept. 11, 2001.

But in Illinois, the Blagojevich administration’s restrictions began roughly around the same time it was disclosed that federal prosecutors were investigating hiring practices and a campaign-contribution kickback scheme at a state pension system.

Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff denied anything has changed.

“We are carefully trying to balance the need for transparency and openness with laws that require protection of private information,” Ottenhoff said.

The Illinois Press Association’s list of the 10 worst instances of government secrecy last year included three decisions by Blagojevich agencies.