Chicago Mayor, a Former Obama Aide, Admits to Using Personal Email for Public Business

by | December 22, 2016

By Bill Ruthhart, Hal Dardick and Jeff Coen

Under pressure from a pair of open records lawsuits, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that he has used personal email accounts to conduct public business, a practice that allowed him to hide some of his government correspondence from the public since he took office.

Emanuel's admission came as he directed the city's Law Department and his personal attorney to settle a lawsuit brought by the Better Government Association. The watchdog organization took Emanuel to court in October 2015 over a Freedom of Information Act request that sought official emails the mayor sent from a nongovernment account.

The settlement was announced 12 days after the Chicago Tribune won a round in its ongoing lawsuit alleging the mayor violated the state's open records laws by refusing to release communications about city business Emanuel conducted through emails and text messages. On Dec. 9, a judge ordered Emanuel to produce an index of certain emails and text messages the mayor sent and received on personal devices, giving him until Jan. 27 to comply.

In settling the BGA lawsuit, Emanuel agreed to turn over about 2,700 pages of emails that his personal attorney determined were government-related in nature.

An initial review of the thousands of emails to and from Emanuel showed the mayor communicating on a range of topics, from reaching out to business leaders and fielding complaints about crime to defending his policies and pitching what he deemed success stories of his administration to national media outlets.

Many of the emails released by the mayor's attorneys show Emanuel writing very little. Most show the mayor either on the receiving end of an email or forwarding one to his staff. What's clear, however, is that Chicago's top power brokers, including a handful of aldermen, knew they could reach Emanuel through his personal rahmemail.com address.

In agreeing to the settlement, the BGA accepted Emanuel and his personal attorney Michael Forde's determination of which emails qualified as public records rather than asking a judge to make that determination.

The terms of the settlement state that Emanuel and his attorneys don't agree his personal emails dealing with government business are public record. "The parties disagree about whether emails stored on personal, non-city email accounts related to the transaction of public business are subject to disclosure under (the Freedom of Information Act)," the settlement reads.

Andy Shaw, the BGA's president and CEO, acknowledged "there is a risk here" that Emanuel's attorneys could have incorrectly determined some of the mayor's personal emails are not public record.

"Is it possible that there is some material that we might have seen at the end of a long court fight but won't see right now? Sure," Shaw said. "But we're a small watchdog organization and we have to watch our costs, our use of time and our use of energy, and we thought this was the right thing to do."

In a statement, Emanuel said he was "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 BGA lawsuit did not seek text messages from the mayor and did not seek emails on specific topics, but was based on a blanket open records request that sought all emails pertaining to public business sent by Emanuel and then-aides David Spielfogel and Lisa Schrader on nongovernment email accounts.

The settlement does not address the request for Spielfogel and Schrader's emails, other than to say the agreement represents no wrongdoing on behalf of former, current or future staffers. Spielfogel declined comment Wednesday on whether he used a personal email address to conduct government business, and Schrader could not be reached.

In Illinois, government business conducted via email by a public official is subject to the state's open records law. Several Tribune open records requests since Emanuel took office have turned up little to no email communications from the mayor on his government email accounts.

In its lawsuit, filed in September 2015, a month before the BGA's case, the Tribune has sought to have a judge determine whether Emanuel violated the state's open records laws by using personal email to conduct government business. Less than two weeks ago, Cook County Judge Kathleen Pantle ordered the city and Emanuel to produce an index of certain emails and text messages that the mayor sent and received on personal devices.

The Tribune lawsuit stemmed from an open records request for electronic communications related to subjects that include the city's scandal-plagued red-light camera program, as well as email and text correspondence between Emanuel and Michael Sacks, the mayor's close confidant and top campaign donor.

Pantle also has ruled that public records law does not distinguish between official and personal devices so long as the subject matter is related to city business. The judge also refused to dismiss the lawsuit after the city argued that the records requests amounted to "an unprecedented and unreasonable invasion of privacy."

Bruce Dold, the Tribune's editor and publisher, noted that the news organization recently had won a "significant legal victory" in its case and that the city had "refused to produce the emails for well more than a year."

"We welcome the release today of public records that pertain to the conduct of city business. It should not have required extended legal action to protect the public's right to this information," Dold said in a statement. "The city has now produced emails that the mayor's personal attorney, Mike Forde, has determined relate to city business. The Tribune has not reached an agreement with the city to settle its lawsuit, but is committed to working with the mayor and the city to ensure the public's right to government records."

By publicly recognizing that he has used a personal email account for government business, Emanuel becomes the latest elected official forced to acknowledge the use of a practice that seeks to shield their communications from the open records laws. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was ensnared in a similar acknowledgment after using her own personal email server, instead of a government account, when serving as secretary of State.

Emanuel's decision to turn over the emails came about a month after the Tribune reported that Emanuel had used personal email accounts to communicate with top government and political figures, including through the use of his own custom email domain that's similar to the one Clinton used as secretary of State. The Tribune reported Emanuel registered his own personal email domain, rahmemail.com, on May 16, 2011 _ the same day he was sworn into office as Chicago's mayor.

Emanuel's use of the account surfaced among thousands of hacked emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta posted by Wikileaks this fall. A subsequent search for the mayor's email domain in 30,000 emails released by the State Department showed Emanuel used the same account to communicate with Clinton, including inviting her to appear at an official event with him in Chicago.

At a news conference last month, Emanuel repeatedly declined to say whether he used his personal email to conduct government business, suggesting his answer would come in a court of law and referencing the Tribune suit.

"We've handed the material over to you guys," Emanuel said, referring to messages from his government email accounts. "You rejected it, so you went to court. That's where my answer will be."

What's clear in the thousands of pages of emails is that those closest to the mayor knew to use his personal email to communicate with him.

That was the case for Sacks, one of Emanuel's closest advisers and No. 1 campaign contributor. Sacks repeatedly emailed the mayor at his rahmemail.com address, and Emanuel's attorneys heavily redacted many of their conversations.

Political strategist David Plouffe also knew to use one of Emanuel's personal accounts when he lobbied the mayor on behalf of Uber in November 2015. A deal was in place for Uber to operate at Chicago airports, but Plouffe emailed about an extra fee to be imposed by the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority and about signage that needed to be placed on Uber vehicles doing pickups at O'Hare International Airport and Midway International Airport.

"Sure this comes as much of a surprise to you as us, since there was an agreement in place," wrote Plouffe, campaign manager in 2008 for President Barack Obama, for whom Emanuel worked for as chief of staff.

Emanuel directed Plouffe, Uber's vice president of policy and strategy, to email two staffers, since he was out of the country. "Impossible for me to address from China."

The messages also showed Emanuel communicating with a wide array of power brokers both in business and politics.

That included an exchange with Illinois' wealthiest man, Ken Griffin _ a hedge fund billionaire and longtime donor to Emanuel whose conversation with the mayor appeared to touched off by Griffin damaging his bicycle on a speed bump.

"Lake front bike path is a disaster. How can this be after they just refinished much of the path?" Griffin wrote Emanuel in April of this year. "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."

Emanuel wrote back that paint was a good idea, "I will look into it," and explained how the plan was to separate biking and running lanes.

"Can they accept private funding ... this is a mess," wrote Griffin.

"Yes why don't I come with the commissioner present our plans and we can do a lot with you," the mayor wrote. Griffin just this week pledged $12 million for a project to help separate uses on the path.

In January 2013, Emanuel emailed Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, asking for more information about the possibility of the online retail giant locating a facility in Chicago.

"While this is below you, this is very important to me and would like to know if there any chance to set up a phone call with you to discuss?" Emanuel wrote the billionaire, who also owns The Washington Post. "Hope you had a Happy New Year."

Bezos responded by adding one of his executives to the email, "who leads our global fulfillment." Amazon has built multiple facilities in suburban collar counties, but not in the city.

(Chicago Tribune's David Kidwell, David Heinzmann and Rick Pearson contributed to this story.)

(c)2016 Chicago Tribune