Access counselor: State should disclose inmate-death records

Corrections agency refuses FOIA, saying investigation would be jeopardized

By John O'Connor
AP Political Writer

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Gov. Bruce Rauner's corrections agency has refused to release public records about a prison altercation that led to the homicide of a 65-year-old inmate and forced the paid suspension of at least four correctional officers.

The state's public access counselor in the Democratic attorney general's office ruled last month that Illinois Department of Corrections officials should release most of the documents regarding the May 17 incident at Western Illinois Correctional Center. The FBI is investigating. Neither FBI nor IDOC officials will comment.

IDOC denied a July Freedom of Information Act request from The Associated Press for records related to the "altercation with prison staff" that proved fatal to Larry Earvin, arguing they are exempt under FOIA exceptions to disclosure that would jeopardize an ongoing criminal investigation. But Assistant Attorney General Edie Steinberg ruled Corrections did not show how transparency would interfere.

"Because IDOC did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that the withheld records are exempt from disclosure under (FOIA), this office concludes that IDOC improperly withheld those records in their entireties," Steinberg wrote in the Nov. 14 opinion directing the agency to produce the records, which is nonbinding.

Asked for comment on why Republican Rauner's administration would not comply after a declaration by the state's public-access arbiter that it had not followed the law, spokeswoman Elizabeth Tomev responded in an email that repeated IDOC's position verbatim.

"The law enforcement agencies leading this investigation believe a release of these records publicly could have a detrimental impact on the investigation," the statement said. "IDOC remains fully committed to cooperating with this ongoing investigation and therefore is unable to release the records at this time."

Earvin's June 26 death after transfer to Centralia Correctional Center in southern Illinois was ruled a homicide , according to an autopsy report. Earvin suffered 15 rib fractures, two dozen abrasions and lacerations, and abdominal injuries so severe that the report indicated he had undergone surgery to remove part of his bowel.

Earvin was black. The race of the four officers, suspended with pay since May 22, is unclear.

Earvin was serving a six-year sentence for a Cook County robbery. He was due for release in September.

The AP's FOIA request to IDOC sought incident reports by internal affairs investigators and the prison's warden, operational records of the prison infirmary for May 17, and medical furloughs and hospital writs issued. Officials confirmed in July that Earvin was airlifted to a regional trauma center from the prison in Mount Sterling, 250 miles (400 kilometers) southwest of Chicago.

IDOC denied the AP's request, claiming exemptions for criminal investigations and medical-record privacy. But when AP appealed to the public access counselor, the agency said it had no records at all, that officials had turned all of them over to the FBI. After AP reported that response, IDOC then told the counselor it had found copies of the documents but again invoked the previous exemptions.

According to Steinberg's opinion, Corrections submitted 89 pages of records to the counselor's office for confidential review. Steinberg found among them an individual patient's medical "progress notes" and a medical examination record that she declared exempt from disclosure.

But she declared that IDOC did not meet its legal burden in demonstrating how other documents constituted private medical records. And she called the agency's defense of secrecy for the sake of investigative independence "conclusory and unsupported by the facts."

The FOIA's investigative exemptions, Steinberg wrote, "apply to proceedings and investigations conducted by the public body that is the recipient of the request" and IDOC did not provide any proof that it is investigating the matter.

"Even if IDOC was actively participating in the ongoing investigation," Steinberg wrote in directing the agency to turn over the records, "IDOC did not explain how disclosure of any of the records responsive to (the AP's) request would interfere with or obstruct the investigation or the proceeding."

Published: Tue, Dec 11, 2018

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