Chicago Taxpayers Could Be on the Hook for 6-Figure Penalty in Public Records Dispute

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A Cook County judge on Wednesday ordered the city of Chicago to turn over discovery records by Thursday afternoon in a legal dispute that could potentially leave taxpayers on the hook for a six-figure penalty - and could have been avoided if the city had followed the law.

The case centers on a Freedom of Information Act request filed by activist William Calloway in November 2019 after Chicago police officers hit Martina Standley with a squad car, pinning her under the vehicle. Standley suffered a traumatic brain injury from the incident. She died earlier this year.

Calloway filed the request for video, reports and other materials on the case five days after that incident. CPD initially denied that request, but after a legal battle lasting more than a year, the city was ordered to release the files.

"Over and over again, the city engaged in a pattern of hiding information, first about the underlying incident and then about how it handled the request for records," said attorney Matt Topic, who is part of the legal team that sued for the materials. They're now seeking penalties, which are allowed under Illinois' public records law to discourage violations.

"In case after case, the city is violating deadlines, violating court orders and violating rules, such that we repeatedly have to file motions for sanctions or motions for contempt in order to make them comply," Topic said.

Last week, Judge Allison Conlon ruled to sanction the city over its failure to turn over discovery documents, or even respond to multiple motions. Conlon said in part that she had "no indication" as to why, with regard to her order to produce the documents by July 29 of this year, "not one finger was lifted, not one document was produced, after even I have expressed some frustration with how much time this was taking."

"It’s not normal, the entire legal system is built upon parties following the rules and following court orders," Topic said.

In a hearing Wednesday, Conlon ordered the city to turn over its discovery files by 12 p.m. Thursday. If the city is found to have willfully violated the law in withholding records, the fine could be more than $700,000 plus legal fees.

"This could be a six-figure penalty that the taxpayers are ultimately responsible for paying because the city has not complied with its obligations," Topic said. "All of this could have been avoided if the city had simply followed the rules and followed court orders."

The Chicago Department of Law declined to discuss the case, pointing to the Chicago Mayor's Office, which did not respond to request for comment.

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