What do billionaire Ken Griffin, Gov. Bruce Rauner and a select few Chicago aldermen have in common? They all had direct access to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's personal email account on which he conducted city business. After a legal settlement announced Wednesday, the mayor released thousands of those emails.
There are no major bombshells contained, but the emails do reveal a mayor who is readily accessible to some of the city’s richest power players, from Griffin, to Rauner, to high-level officials at big companies, to a select few aldermanic allies. It also shows the mayor constantly worried about his public image and pitching positive Chicago stories to national media.
One email to then-private citizen Rauner, who served as chairman of Choose Chicago, when he was upset over hotel taxes, reads: “I love you a lot. I am giving a tax cut to the hotel industry, giving McCormick Place $1 million in new money. Keeping the city hotel tax cheaper than NYC, San Antonio, Philadelphia, los angeles, seattle, san Francisco. We are still less.”
Another email from the state’s richest resident, Citadel Investments CEO Griffin: “What can we do to repair the lakefront bike path? Any idea if the park district plans to do this?...can they accept private funding? This is a mess.”
That exchange eventually led to the recent joint announcement that Griffin would donate $12 million to separate the bike and running trails along the lakefront.
I asked Emanuel why it seemed Chicago’s richest patrons seemed to have inordinate private access to him. He said he was accessible to all sorts of Chicagoans, not just through email, but in person and at public events. And he worried that there could be a cost to all of this scrutiny on private emails.
“What I hope is not the repercussion, and I have seen this over the years, is, you don’t want to see someone in public life be totally excluded from being exposed to people who have different views, different ideas, and want to get to them,” he said.
Going forward, because of this settlement between the mayor and the Better Government Association, any city employee, including the mayor, who uses private email to conduct public business will have to immediately forward it to a public, city account, or be reprimanded. The mayor was regularly using a private email account from the time he was sworn in in 2011, and critics argued that it meant he could hide what city business he was doing and who he was doing it with away from Freedom of Information Act requests. The BGA and the mayor had been tangled up in a yearlong case to change that.
“The mayor is one of many public officials that hid their conversations in private accounts,” said Better Government Association chief Andy Shaw. “They thought they could do it with impunity and get away with it, and that’s why they fought it in court over the last year. We had two favorable rulings from judges in the past year that made it clear that we were likely to win and they were likely to lose.”
The mayor, when asked why he maintained a private account and fought the release of these emails for so long, blamed it on uncharted technological waters and wanting to be careful to not do political work on city time.
“We’re all in uncharted waters, all of us,” Emanuel said. “We got to an agreement with the BGA that they themselves called a landmark policy shift. We synched up technology and transparency and sheds a light going forward for all city employees, and gives people the information that they need.”
Though the email release is voluminous, it only represents a fraction of the possible emails that contain public business. After 90 days, all of Emanuel’s private email auto-deletes, so the only email that was recovered as part of this settlement was email that he forwarded on to ohter people’s city accounts.
“Auto-delete protected the mayor from a lot of email disclosures that could have been more controversial and inflammatory. That’s not something we can control. His lawyers argue that, to protect him from being hacked, they have to be scrubbed periodically. If you keep years and years of emails, and there’s a hacker around, a lot of delicate emails can be hacked and used inappropriately,” Shaw said.
The Chicago Tribune also has an ongoing lawsuit to get at more of Emanuel’s emails.
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