Questions Remain After Emanuel Releases Private Emails

CHICAGO (CBS) — Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office has released thousands of private emails he used to conduct city business, but some critics have questioned if there are more that haven’t seen the light of day.

Wednesday afternoon, the city released nearly 3,000 pages of the mayor’s private emails from more than 1,000 email chains, after agreeing to settle a lawsuit filed by the Better Government Association.

The BGA had sued the city last year to gain access to the emails.

The release of the emails can be seen as a first step to more transparency at City Hall, but the question remains about whether Emanuel’s attorneys released all of the mayor’s private emails that discussed public business.

The emails that were released can be accessed by clicking here, and entering the password Chic@goDecember2016

The mayor’s lawyers and the BGA agreed to the settlement before allowing a judge to make the call. The BGA still called that a victory, trusting the mayor was honest.

The emails show Emanuel communicated with top business and political players, but one surprise in the emails was a lack of any mention of Laquan McDonald, the teen who was fatally shot 16 times by a police officer now charged with his murder. The release of the video of that shooting last year set off a series of angry protests across the city, and led to demands the mayor resign.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), a frequent critic of the mayor, said he finds it hard to believe Emanuel did not discuss the McDonald case in private emails at the time the video was released.

“There is no way that there’s not more emails out there, or texts around that issue, because we know for a fact that they were communicating with different people. As we learn more and more about how the lawyers were doing this, and dealing with it, and the mayor was intimately involved. There’s got to be more out there,” Waguespack said. “There’s been so many documents, there’s been so many issues withheld from the people of this city over the last five years, I wouldn’t put it past them to have more out there.”

The alderman said it would have been better if a judge decided which of the mayor’s private emails should have been released to the public.

“It might take longer for the judge to do it, but essentially you have documents that were hidden from the public for a long time. You’re doing business on the city time, and with city money – taxpayers’ dollars – and it should have been a judge that really looked through them,” Waguespack said.

As for the emails that were made public, Waguespack said he sees “a lot of problematic issues.” In particular, the alderman pointed to an email in which Emanuel bragged about his move to phase out the city’s program to provide health care for retired employees.

“Number one, he took glee with getting rid of retiree healthcare, and there was a document in there about how they’re looking at privatizing parks. There’s issues like that that I think, in the broader context, are policy discussion. They’re big issues that I think need to be discussed by the mayor in public, and a lot of times we don’t know what he’s thinking,” the alderman said.

The emails that were released include a communication with billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, a longtime Emanuel donor, who complained that the city’s Lakefront Trail is “a disaster” and suggested painting speed bumps on city streets white after damaging his bike.

“Why doesn’t the city paint the speed bumps on the road white — my damage bill is over $10k from going over one at dusk,” Griffin wrote in April.

The mayor said painting speed bumps on the road was a good idea and said he would look into it. The mayor also told Griffin about plans in the works to upgrade the Lakefront Trail.

“First from Fullerton to Ohio and 31 to 51 st we are creating separate bike and running paths. Clear and distinct. Also removing seven miles with bike lanes and running ground along side,” the mayor wrote.

Griffin later asked if the Chicago Park District could accept private funding for the Lakefront Trail. It seems that conversation led to Griffin’s decision – announced this week – to donate $12 million to the Park District to create separate paths for bikes and pedestrians along the entire 18-mile trail – rather than just the seven miles the city was already working on.

Even with his questions about what else might be out there, Waguespack said the release of the mayor’s private emails is a victory for the BGA and for Chicago taxpayers.

“It kind of shows a picture of how he does things. It doesn’t tell us the details of a lot, but it gives us a picture of how government operates, and I think that’s what a lot of us have been trying to say for many years, is that Chicago needs to change the way it does business,” he said. “We continue to see the person at the top skirting the laws, skirting policy, and saying I’m not going to follow those, and that’s – for me and a lot of people – that’s what we want to see changed in Chicago.”

The emails date back to 2011. Nothing stood out as indecent or scandalous, but the BGA said the dispute was more about setting a precedent.

“We weren’t expecting a ton of news or bombshells in the emails themselves. We fought this lawsuit to establish a new policy that basically says, whether you’re Mayor Rahm Emanuel or the lowest clerk at City Hall, you can’t hide public business behind a private email account,” BGA president Andy Shaw said.

Under the settlement, the city has agreed to require all city employees to use their city email accounts when dealing with public matters, or face a penalty. If any city employee receives a private email from someone discussing public business, the employee must immediately forward that email to their city email account.

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