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The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has found insufficient evidence to support Evanston Mayor Stephen Hagerty’s call for a criminal investigation into the leaking of confidential materials from a City Council executive session, in a case that stirred wide notice a year ago.
The office confirmed the decision in a July 20 email to the RoundTable, responding to an inquiry about the status of the case.
“After a review, we concluded that the information we received related to this matter was insufficient to support the filing of criminal charges at this time.
“The parties involved were previously notified of this decision,” the State’s Attorney’s Office said, not adding details.
Mayor Hagerty made his initial request for a criminal investigation in a July 26, 2019, letter to Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart. A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office confirmed last October that that office had turned the case over to the State’s Attorney’s Office.
In his letter to the Sheriff’s Department, Mayor Hagerty had referred to confidential materials from a July 8, 2019, executive session in which aldermen discussed a draft letter from the law firm Robbins Schwartz. The City had contracted with the firm, requesting that the State’s Attorney’s office pursue an investigation into unhealthy work place complaints brought by three employees against City Clerk Devon Reid. (Mr. Reid later denied the basis of the complaints.)
“The release of the July 8 privileged and confidential Executive Session package, containing detailed information on the employee complaints and eavesdropping allegations and attorney-client privileged communications, is an extraordinary act of misconduct,” the Mayor charged at that time. “I have reason to believe that packet was released by an individual Alderman acting without the authorization of the City Council. If so, such action qualifies as ‘Official Misconduct’ under the Illinois Official Misconduct Act.”
At the time, a number of aldermen said they were unaware that the Mayor had taken the action.
“The fact that it was dropped demonstrates a complete overreaching of the imagined authority that the Mayor seems to believe he has,” said Ald. Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, when he was told the case was closed.
He said the Mayor’s action amounted to [saying] “I’m uncomfortable, I’m calling law enforcement.”
What should be investigated, Mr. Suffredin maintained, was the cost to taxpayers of bringing in an outside law firm to investigate the Clerk’s actions in the first place.
The Mayor’s letter to Mr. Dart also noted a Freedom of Information request from a local blogger, Misty Witenberg, as tipping off officials that the confidential materials had been released.
At the time, Ms. Witenberg argued that her group, Evanston Leads, felt the case was “so misrepresented by the Council that he [Devon Reid] had not been able to provide a defense, and it was in the public’s interest to have an accurate representation of the charges they [City officials] had effectively already made public.”
In calling for a criminal investigation, Mayor Hagerty acknowledged that he was disappointed that he had to make such an “unpleasant and embarrassing” request.
He said in a short phone interview July 21, though, that if faced with the same circumstances he would take the same action again.
Officials have a fiduciary responsibility to the City Council and to the City of Evanston (i.e., the Corporation) to protect the rights of City employees and other elected officials by protecting the privileged and confidential information concerning such individuals, he has argued.
“It is critical to the well-functioning of Evanston that what is discussed in executive session remain in executive session,” he said in the phone interview, “and when that is broken all of us should understand the potential consequences,” he said.
“How can elected officials work effectively together when they question whether they can trust one another?” he asked, and when someone leaks information, “especially potentially damaging information about one of their colleagues or another elected official?”
On July 22, Mayor Hagerty told the RoundTable he did notify aldermen that he had made a request to the Sheriff’s office for an investigation of official misconduct in an email that went out to them later the same day as the letter, July 26, 2019.
“While this decision to call in the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to investigate is embarrassing and unpleasant,” he wrote in the email to aldermen, a copy of which was provided the RoundTable, “I hope it is the first step to repairing and rebuilding trust among the City Council and within our community.”
This article was updated for a correction on July 22.