Emanuel agrees to release private emails, ending court fight

SUN-TIMES MEDIA WIRE - In a surprise reversal that ends a marathon legal battle, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has agreed to release a virtual “treasure trove” of his private emails and ban city employees from using their private emails to conduct city business.

Emanuel’s year-end change of heart follows a parade of Freedom of Information requests denied by the city and lawsuits filed by the Better Government Association and the Chicago Tribune.

It also follows more than a year of litigation and two court rulings against the city by Circuit Court judges who maintained that the emails of public officials cannot escape Freedom of Information requests simply because they are on a private email account.

The lengthy legal battle was contrary to Emanuel’s campaign promise to shine the light on city government and run a transparent administration.

Going forward, Emanuel vowed to implement a new city policy that prohibits city employees from “using their private or other non-city email accounts for the transaction of public business.”

The policy will be spelled out in writing to all city employees. It will instruct city employees that, if they receive an email pertaining to city business on a non-city account, the email must be promptly forwarded to the city email account. Failure to comply with the new policy “may subject the employee or officials to discipline.”

To underscore his commitment to the new policy, Emanuel released his private emails after the close of business on Wednesday. The massive information dump was reminiscent of what he did last New Year’s Eve with information pertaining to the police shooting of Laquan McDonald and other controversial police shootings.

BGA President and CEO Andy Shaw welcomed the agreement, even as he acknowledged that it should not have taken this long to persuade Emanuel to honor his promise to be transparent.

“This is a major victory in the fight for transparency at City Hall. It gives us access to information that the public is entitled to. And the policy change should make it clear that you cannot use a private email account to avoid transparency,” Shaw said.

“That’s what officials from Hillary Clinton [on down] around the country have done. Private email accounts can’t be a vehicle to circumventing public disclosure. I think we’ve established that principle in Chicago with this settlement. It’s a long expensive process to accomplish something that should have been done because it’s the right thing to do.”

Shaw said he won’t know what there is to learn from the mayor’s emails until he reads them. But, he said, “This is a treasure trove of information. I mean — thousands of emails. We’re gonna go through `em and find out what we learn. Even if we don’t learn anything that’s breaking news, we will have established an important precedent. You can’t use private email accounts to hide public business.”

In a press release issued late Wednesday, Emanuel was quoted as saying, “I’m pleased that we were able to come to a reasonable agreement with the Better Government Association today to ensure that transparency keeps up with technology and the realities of modern communication. The new standard we have set clarifies questions not just for me, but for all of Chicago’s 30,000 employees.”