DeKalb County Coroner Dennis Miller tells me he understands Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act.
I think he’s mistaken. If Miller really does understand the state’s freedom of information law, he’s not too concerned with following it.
Some background: On Oct. 25, 2013, a young woman jumped from the top of a parking garage on the campus at Northern Illinois University to her death. The Daily Chronicle tries to avoid reporting on suicide whenever possible, however, this event occurred on a Friday afternoon in a highly visible area – ignoring it was not an option.
It is customary for authorities to identify people who are killed in such incidents after notifying their families. However, in this case, NIU authorities made an agreement not to release the person’s name.
The Daily Chronicle is the public’s eyes and ears, and when someone dies in the community, state law says we all have a right to know. If you don’t think that’s a necessary right, consider that without it people could “disappear” and we might never know what became of them.
In reporting the story, one of the people News Editor Jillian Duchnowski talked with was Miller, who told her on that Friday evening that he didn’t have the records with him but that we should call on Monday when an autopsy would be performed.
No documents: We called Miller that Monday, but he’d decided by then not to identify the victim. So we did what reporters do when government officials refuse to release public information – we filed a freedom of information request, seeking records pertaining to people whose bodies were autopsied on Oct. 28, 2013. We also sought any records pertaining to the person whose body was recovered on the NIU campus on Oct. 25.
Miller never released any records. Not to us, and apparently not to the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor’s office, which later reviewed Miller’s response.
In his first response to our request, Coroner Miller said only that “a 51-year-old male died of natural causes” and that regarding the other person, “when we receive the final autopsy report” it would become public record.
In regard to our second request, Miller said we should talk to the police.
The law says a public official must cite an exemption under the law for withholding documents, which Miller did not do. The only scrap of information in Miller’s letter was about a person he didn’t identify. Why didn’t he identify that person, I asked Miller this week.
“We just didn’t do it,” Miller said, showing his disregard for the public’s right to know public information.
We eventually learned the victim’s name after NIU officials complied with our freedom of information request, and did report it.
But Miller’s response was too blatantly wrong to let pass. I appealed to State’s Attorney Richard Schmack’s office, but Schmack said that as state’s attorney, he was Miller’s lawyer, and so couldn’t talk to me about it.
Schmack should have advised Miller to release the records we requested. If such advice ever was given, Miller didn’t heed it.
On Dec. 5, we received another letter from Miller’s office. It still contained no records, but did identify the person who had jumped off the parking garage, though it misspelled her name.
On Dec. 10, the Attorney General’s office sent Miller a letter telling him I had requested an inquiry and asking him to send copies of all the documents in question, without deleting anything, to their office for review.
Months passed. The person working on the case at the public access office went to another job, which probably slowed things down. Then, Attorney General Lisa Madigan visited DeKalb on May 29. Things picked back up.
Finally this week, Miller and I received a letter from the Attorney General’s Public Access Bureau stating what I knew months ago: Miller’s response was improper. The documents produced by his office are presumed open to public inspection, but he never provided any or said why he didn’t.
“The Coroner’s office also violated FOIA by failing to provide this office with copies of the records in question for our confidential review,” the letter, written by Christopher Boggs of the Attorney General’s office, reads.
As I told Boggs, this ceased to be about the news value of the actual records long ago, and more about the coroner’s lack of concern for the public’s right to public information.
Openness is critical to good government, whether it’s how public money is spent or how a death is investigated. Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act does not allow officials to pick and choose what information to release to citizens without a legal basis for doing so. If anything comes of this exercise, perhaps it will be that everyday taxpayers who might want to know about their government are not treated with this same disregard.
For what it’s worth, Miller and Schmack both said this week that we could have the documents we requested 10 months ago.
At least, it would be a start.