Money for the taking | Bleader

Money for the taking

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Many of us found it absurd that aldermen, even in Chicago, would thwart a simple attempt to make public records about taxpayer money more accessible online. 

But it turns out there may be a good reason for it: the records might not actually exist.

In this week's edition of the Reader, Ben Joravsky and I report on how little evidence the city can come up with to show that it was monitoring the terms of its $10 million subsidy deal with Republic Windows and Doors from 1996 to 2006. Specifically, we sent in a Freedom of Information Act request asking the city for "copies of all reports, audits, and other documentation produced by city of Chicago officials from monitoring compliance" of the agreement with Republic. What we got back was a mere five pages--"certificates" of staffing levels reported by the company for just half the years of the agreement.

Then, as we wrote in the story, "We called the community development department and asked why Republic hadn't prepared job certificates every year, whether the city had done anything about it, whether city officials had visited the factory and checked the reported job data, and why had taken so long to round up the materials for us.... We were told it would take a few days to get answers. We're still waiting."

Not anymore. On Wednesday afternoon, a day after our print deadline, we received answers via e-mail from community development spokeswoman Molly Sullivan.

She confirmed that the five pages we’d received through our FOIA request were the only records the department had on Republic’s compliance with its TIF agreement. She couldn’t say why the city didn’t have annual reports for more than half the years the company was supposed to submit them. “They were required [to submit them] but our files only contain these documents that we provided to you,” she wrote.

The department has no evidence that city officials had ever visited Republic to check or monitor the information it did send in, she said. “It is reasonable to assume this did take place but, again, we have no records to provide.”

Sullivan added that the department did have a copy of a 2006 report showing that Republic had 750 employees, well above the 549 minimum required by the TIF agreement. She said the report had been prepared by the LEED Council, a nonprofit economic development agency that the city had hired to be its “eyes and ears” on Goose Island, where Republic had been located. But that report was not included in the materials the city gave us in response to our request, even though it should have been under the state FOIA.

And why had it taken three weeks--twice what's allowed under the FOIA--for the department to respond to our request? "Due to the department mergers (housing and planning) and staff turnover and departure, it took some time to identify the current staff that would be able to locate the files," Sullivan wrote. 

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