Brothel’ FOIA request denied by city

Marshall Cohen

City Clerk Rodney Greene said Thursday the city might have acted “fraudulently” by denying a Freedom of Information Act request for a list of all residences under investigation of building code violations.

The request asked the city to apply the same standards it did in releasing to Northwestern last month a list of nearly 50 student residencies being investigated for that same reason.

“If the list was given to Northwestern, and a second person asked for that same list with the same criteria and it was not given to the requester, then that would be a fraudulent answer,” said Greene, whose office handles FOIA requests. “If one entity did receive it with no problems and another entity didn’t get it, then that’s a lie and a fraudulent statement.”

The list, made public Oct. 3, contained 52 residences under investigation, 49 of which were properties rented by Northwestern students, Dean of Students Burgwell Howard told Northwestern News Network.

Steve Griffin, the city’s director of community and economic development, told The Daily last month the information came from public records and was released after NU officials asked for it.

“They requested it, and we gave it to them,” Griffin said. “They’re all public record. We just made the public record available.”

Griffin confirmed this statement Thursday.

Howard Handler, government affairs director of the Illinois Association of Realtors, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the city a day after the city released the list. He asked for “a list of all open building and/or overcrowding cases under investigation by the City of Evanston … using the same standards employed in releasing the recent list of 52 properties to Northwestern University,” according to the official filing that he provided to The Daily.

Handler’s request was not granted, and he claims “the city broke the law” by declining to provide him with the already released content and more.

“Mr. Griffin said this was public information,” Handler said. “So I thought, if this is public, let’s see the extent that the city is investing properties that are not just focused on the ones that serve students.”

Griffin said he was “not aware of that request at all” but that the request “sounds like a report that would need to be generated.” He declined further comment.

The city denied Handler’s request in a letter Oct. 12 ­- eight days after he formally filed the paperwork – because “the requested record does not exist.” Jeff Murphy, the top city official for building inspections, signed the letter.

Murphy did not immediately return multiple phone messages seeking comment Thursday.

Greene said the requester, Handler, could file a lawsuit or report the incident to the Illinois Attorney General in Springfield.

Handler did not rule out taking legal action.

“The city is really lucky that a lawsuit hasn’t been filed already,” he said.

Greene also questioned how NU officials obtained the original list last month.

“The city gave information to the University that should have also been granted in the FOIA request,” Greene said. “Why they gave NU the information without a FOIA request in the first place is a good question.”

Handler said at the very least he expected to be given the same list of 52 properties the city issued to NU.

He instead received nothing except a denial letter, which he considers “irresponsible and illegal.”

“The sole purpose of FOIA is to access information and provide oversight of government actions,” Handler said. “When we can’t access information, we can’t discuss the issues freely and honestly.”

Handler also said that his “mind is blown” regarding how the city compiled the original list, which Handler insisted was “based on hearsay and uninvestigated complaints.”

“It is completely unbelievable for a city of this size and supposed sophistication to not provide due process and to essentially boycott properties without substantiating complaints,” he said. “I’ve never heard ever of a government blacklisting properties like this before.”

Handler filed a FOIA request earlier this year requesting the formula Evanston officials used to determine regular occupancy standards and other housing-related specifics.

The city denied his request less than two weeks after his initial filing. He has appealed to the Illinois Attorney General who confirmed receiving the appeal in March but has yet to issue a ruling.

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Check out Handler’s FOIA request and the response he received from the City of Evanston below: