Rock Valley College racks up $21K in legal fees responding to anonymous public records requests

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Illinois Freedom of Information Act does not require individuals to identify themselves when requesting records from a public body.

Rock Valley College students walk between classes Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, at the school in Rockford. RRSTAR.COM FILE PHOTO

Rock Valley College students walk between classes Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, at the school in Rockford. RRSTAR.COM FILE PHOTO

ROCKFORD — Thomas Paine has penned 14 Freedom of Information Act requests to Rock Valley College since August 2015.

Paine’s 1776 pamphlet Common Sense added momentum to the movement for independence from Britain. The new Paine, Rock Valley administrators say, is using the 18th-century writer’s name so that he or she can anonymously obtain payroll records, employee contracts, administrators’ emails and other public records from the college. The Illinois FOI law does not require the requester to provide a name when asking for public records. 

Rock Valley has received 67 requests for public records since August of last year, and 35 of them, or 52 percent, have come from Paine and others using fake names. The college has paid its Chicago law firm, Robbins Schwartz, $35,073 to review and respond to all FOI requests it has received since August 2015. Of that, $21,581 — 61 percent of all RVC’s legal fees for FOI matters — are attributable to Paine and the other mystery requesters.

“The law is the law. We have to respond to FOI requests, but this is kind of annoying,” Rock Valley Board Chairman Patrick Murphy said.

“To me, what’s annoying is the fact that all these requests are anonymous,” he said. “Why are these people hiding? It’s almost like they’re trying to catch us doing something wrong. But there’s nothing to catch.”

Paine and the rest of the Rock Valley’s mystery FOI requesters haven’t received all of the public records they’ve sought. College administrators have denied several of the requests, entirely or in part, citing the “overly burdensome” nature of the requests, which is an allowable exemption under the state and federal versions of the FOI law.

Nevertheless, the voluminous records requests are ill-timed when one considers that the college has lost millions of dollars in state aid over the past few years, and trustees have authorized tuition increases to keep pace with the cost of providing higher education, Trustee Bob Trojan said.

Rock Valley spokesman Dave Costello said some of the anonymous FOI requests have come to the college from email accounts such as “citizenpaine@gmail.com” or been mailed to the college from post office boxes.

“The law says we aren’t allowed to ask who they are,” Costello said. “We aren’t even allowed to ask why they want the information. The only question we can ask is to clarify what records they’re asking for, but we can’t ask why they want it. We can ask whether the individual is making the request for commercial purposes because we have more time to respond to commercial requests.”

Rock Valley isn’t the only local public body to wrestle with costly public records requests. Machesney Park paid legal fees of more than $5,000 in 2013 to respond to eight Freedom of Information queries submitted by former village president Tom Strickland less than three months after he left office. Strickland told the Register Star at the time that he sought the public records because he wasn’t satisfied with village leadership. He continued to send the village more FOI requests.

“It went on for at least a year’s time,” Village Clerk Lori Mitchell said.

She discussed the matter with the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor and determined that Strickland qualified as a “recurrent requester.” That, according to the Illinois’ FOI law, is someone who in the 12 months immediately preceding a request has submitted to the same public body at least 50 requests for records in all or at least 15 requests for records within a 30-day period or at least seven requests for records within a seven-day period. In those situations, the public body has 21 days to respond to the requester instead of the usual five days.

“We still had to respond to all of his FOI requests,” Mitchell said. “We just had more time to do it. I think people sometimes are genuinely concerned and genuinely want information, but if they’re submitting lots of FOI requests just to be a nuisance, it’s irritating.”

Sometimes, public records requests are used to play political games. John E. Cabello, for example, submitted an FOI request to Rock Valley on July 27 seeking employee performance evaluations, appraisals, disciplinary records and other documents for Tricia Cratty Sweeney, a former RVC marketing and communications staffer.

Sweeney, a Democrat, is challenging Republican state Rep. John M. Cabello for the 68th District seat in the Illinois House. Rock Valley denied much of the FOI request, though the college did provide some records, including a copy of Sweeney’s resignation agreement, said Costello, the RVC spokesman.

Costello said that when he saw the email address that the FOI request came from — vettingtherep2016@gmail.com — he realized that the author’s middle initial was different from that of the state representative from Machesney Park. The Register Star asked the lawmaker and Sweeney whether either was responsible for the FOI request — both said no — and whether they knew who was behind it. Neither said they knew.

“I did check with all my team to make sure it wasn’t us,” Cabello said. “It wasn’t. But I’d be furious if it was. This kind of thing makes you a little upset because somebody out there is trying to make you look like a bad guy. All of my campaigns have been pretty positive.”

Isaac Guerrero: 815-987-1361; iguerrero@rrstar.com; @isaac_rrs

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Rock Valley College racks up $21K in legal fees responding to anonymous public records requests

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