FOIA helps keep bad actors accountable, bolsters environmental reporting

By Camilla Forte

Local Chicago reporters outlined Sunday how FOIA was used to break a key story surrounding the Hilco demolition in May 2020, exposing that city officials had neglected the many environmental concerns raised by residents and other stakeholders before the stacks were leveled.

Chicago Sun-Times reporter Brett Chase, Block Club Chicago reporter Mauricio Peña and freelance journalist Justin Lawrence talked about this story and shared their insights on the many roadblocks they have encountered while covering the environment beat.

Peña said the Hilco story had been developing for years before it entered the public consciousness and built on more than a year of previous reporting.

“I don’t even remember how many stories I did on this, but it was in the dozens,” Peña said. “The summer before the implosion residents were trying to get a timeline as to what demolition was gonna look like, what the remediation process was going to look like, and they weren’t getting these answers.”

Their previous work allowed the reporters to determine the impact on the community and determine what government officials were doing before the demolition. Chase said emails they obtained through FOIA enabled the journalists to establish a timeline from which they built the larger story.

All three reporters said getting records from various government offices was challenging, so pressing FOIA offices for the information they had requested was crucial throughout.

“I think a lot of FOIA officers take their job seriously, you know, they’re not very high-ranking people. They report up to lawyers who are political appointees, and the politics of this just gets ridiculous,” Chase said.

Lawrence said there was a point during the FOIA process when after multiple delays, he was told the city was moving slowly because they were having to deal with the coronavirus crisis, which he later learned was not true.

Eventually, the journalists, with the help of attorney Matt Topic, had to threaten to sue the city to gain access to all of the materials they requested; they finally received a response just as the story was about to be published.

The panelists, part of the Chicago Headline Club’s FOIAFest2021, also discussed how they tread the line between advocacy and reporting, noting their goal is to encourage greater accountability.

“That’s what we do: We work from the standpoint of regular people, people who are impacted by these decisions, by these powerful people,” Chase said. “As a journalist, we are here to fight the power and to keep these people honest.”

The journalists said there have been some positive outcomes to their reporting.

Although the changes in government policies made as a result of their reporting aren’t enough for residents and advocates, Peña said progress has been made, including increased fines for polluters.

Chase, Lawrence and Peña said there is more work to be done to ensure the city is held accountable, citing the ongoing situation with General Iron.

“If we don’t at least shine a light on some of these things, they’re gonna get ignored,” said Chase. “I mean, that’s the only reason I do my job, to get results.”