Copies of payment records related to the DuPage County Forest Preserve District's dealings with a vendor should be released to the public, according to a recent letter from the Illinois Attorney General's office.
But the forest district is refusing to comply with the nonbinding request because officials say the documents are the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation.
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"An investigating criminal agency has asked the forest preserve district to assert the Freedom of Information Act exemption for criminal investigations," said Jim Knippen, the district's attorney. "The forest preserve district has decided to honor that request pending any court order to the contrary."
Lisle resident MaryLynn Zajdel said she sought the records -- including contracts, agreements and invoices -- after the district hired an outside consultant to examine financial discrepancies within the district's information technology department.
Sources have told the Daily Herald the consultant found two district employees may have steered professional service contracts to companies they benefited from personally. The two worked for the district for five years and 10 years, respectively. One resigned Nov. 7, 2011; the other was fired Nov. 15.
In a May 4 letter, Assistant Attorney General Steve Silverman indicated the records Zajdel requested involved "sizable contracts and payments of substantial sums of public monies."
Sources said the forest preserve's internal review revealed the steered contracts were worth about $12,000 a month and go back at least a year. Contracts worth less than $20,000 can be awarded without board consent, according to district policy.
"The procurement process in place over there was my concern," Zajdel said, "and how the process could have or would have prevented some misuse of funds."
In January, the district denied Zajdel's FOIA request, saying the documents were part of an investigation being conducted by the DuPage County State's Attorney's office. However, the attorney general's office determined the FOIA exemption doesn't apply to the forest preserve because it's not the agency conducting the criminal investigation.
"Moreover, the assertion that disclosure of the records would interfere with the state's attorney's ongoing criminal investigation is largely conclusory and unsupported by facts," Silverman wrote in the letter. "Accordingly, we conclude that the district has not sustained its burden of demonstrating by clear and convincing evidence that the records in question are exempt from disclosure."
Still, the forest preserve is standing by its decision.
Linda Klett, the district's FOIA officer, on May 18 informed Zajdel that the state's attorney's office is going to seek an injunction prohibiting release of the records because of its criminal probe.
"The district will not do anything to compromise that criminal investigation and therefore intends to rely on the cited exemption pending the court's ruling on the state's attorney's complaint which the district understands will be filed shortly," Klett wrote in an email to Zajdel.
As of Friday, the request for an injunction had not been filed.
State's attorney's spokesman Paul Darrah would neither confirm nor deny the office directed the forest preserve to withhold records.
In the meantime, Zajdel said she wishes the attorney general's office had issued a binding opinion. If it had, the forest preserve would have had to challenge the release of the records in court.
A spokeswoman said the attorney general's office wasn't able to meet a 60-day deadline to draft the letter in time for it to become a binding opinion.
That was disappointing to Zajdel.
"As far as I'm concerned, a nonbinding opinion doesn't really do much good," she said. "It's nice to know what they think, but it doesn't produce the records."