Chicago city hall officials are in a bit of trouble for recording phone conversations with Chicago Tribune reporters without their consent
. A city attorney is downplaying the incidents, insisting that there's no "widespread practice of such tapings" and promising that "steps are being taken" to prevent this from happening again.
Why is this a big deal? Because recording a conversation without the consent of all parties is a felony in Illinois. But what happens when city hall officials, who should be familiar with these laws, violate them? Not much. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's response is that committing a felony is nothing to get excited about.
Asked about the recordings at an unrelated news conference Monday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the issue was “much ado about nothing.”
“My view is, like all, we have a press conference here, I expect my staff to have a record of it,” he said. “And if I have a phone conversation, an interview, I expect to have a record of it as well.”
But the commission of a felony is a very big deal
if committed by regular citizens. Radley Balko says it's all about who's doing the recording... and who they're recording
So remember when Chicago police were arresting people for recording them, and charging them with crimes punishable by 10 or more years in prison? Remember the woman who was arrested and charged because she attempted to record Chicago PD internal affairs police browbeating her when she tried to report a sexual assault by a Chicago cop? Remember all that stuff we heard from Chicago PD and Cook County DA Anita Alvarez’s office about protecting privacy?
That's not an isolated event. Earlier this year, two men filed a lawsuit
against the city of Chicago, alleging they were battered, strip-searched and falsely charged after filming a traffic accident caused by a police car. Late last year, a man was arrested for recording the police and charged with illegal eavesdropping and is now facing a sentence of up to 75 years in prison
. Another man was arrested and told he was facing 15 years in prison
for daring to record a traffic stop.
The good news is that the courts have rejected some of these cases, stating that the law these citizens were arrested for breaking may be unconstitutional
. For now, the law still stands. And the recordings done by members of city hall are illegal. The claims that the recordings were simply inadvertent errors rather than part of something more nefarious don't wash when you take a look at what was being discussed when the recordings occurred.
The issue reached a public forum last week when a court filing in a wrongful death lawsuit against the city raised questions about whether a city spokeswoman had recorded Tribune reporters without their consent as they conducted a phone interview with Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy in October 2011.
And in separate incidents this past September, city spokespeople twice recorded a Tribune reporter as he conducted phone interviews with a top city official involved in Emanuel's controversial speed camera program. The spokespeople acknowledged that they independently recorded the interviews without asking the reporter for consent.
Odd that the illegal recordings would have occurred during discussions about possible law enforcement malfeasance. Emanuel's press aides openly admit that recordings take place during media interviews about "controversial topics," but most of these interviews are done in person, making the recording obvious. No effort was made to inform these reporters that their conversations were being recorded.
Last month, the city turned over to the plaintiff's lawyers an audio recording and transcript of the conference call showing no evidence that McCarthy or Hamilton sought consent to record the Tribune reporters.
"Absent from the audio and the transcript was evidence of the parties' consent," according to a court filing last week by the plaintiff's attorney, Craig Sandberg.
Not only is the required consent absent, but the recordings seem to be missing as well:
Gerould Kern, senior vice president and editor of the Tribune, declined to comment Friday about the recordings. Instead, he cited the letter sent by Tribune Co. attorney Karen Flax to Patton, demanding that city officials cease recording Tribune reporters without consent. The letter also asked that the city preserve copies of all recorded conversations and turn them over to the Tribune.
In its response Saturday, the city said it was unclear whether there would be any tapes to turn over.
As Balko points out, the double standard on display here is egregious. Ordinary people get cuffed, threatened, charged with felonies and in some cases, beaten and strip-searched. City officials don't even get a slap on the wrist. Instead, they get the mayor's assurance that their illegal recordings are a whole lot of nothing for anyone to be concerned about. Even the "mysterious" disappearance of the requested recordings fails to raise an eyebrow. Just one of those things that happens to evidence that incriminates politicians and members of law enforcement.
The growing gap between the governing and the governed continues. Those on the enforcement side treat many laws as optional. Those governed and policed are still forced to comply with the laws, no matter how (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) badly written and randomly enforced.