Fairview Heights refuses FOIA request for attorneys' billings in online travel lawsuits

Amelia Flood Jun. 16, 2009, 10:27am


Mitchell

The city of Fairview Heights has rejected a request to examine its bills from City Attorney Al Paulson for his work on the city's four-year battle with online travel companies.

City Clerk Joseph Kassly, after consulting with Paulson, denied the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that was made by the Madison County Record.

The Record is attempting to answer questions about how much Paulson and the other attorneys who worked on the suits received.

Fairview Heights netted about $315,000 in its battle with 13 online travel companies including Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline.com and others.

The Record filed the FOIA by request from the City Clerk's Office on June 8. In his June 12 reply, Kassly wrote that Paulson informed him that entries on the bills were protected and the bills "could disclose other matters, i.e. personnel matters, etc. and therefore we cannot honor your request for records."

Although the letter does not specifically cite the exemptions claimed by the city, Illinois's FOIA law does allow public bodies the right to refuse to turn over documents in case of personnel files and other matters.

The paper has asked the city to clarify under which exemptions it has denied the request. The law states that in refusing a FOIA request, public bodies must cite the exemption the documents fall under. The paper's request for clarification is pending.

The Record will have the option of appealing the refusal to Fairview Heights Mayor Gail Mitchell. If Mitchell upholds the clerk's refusal, the paper will have the option of taking the matter to the state's Attorney General's Office.

Mitchell has said in prior interviews that he would authorize the release of documents related to the suits. The city did honor a FOIA request for its settlement agreements for the suits in May. However, the portion of that FOIA that asked for an accounting of the attorneys' fees in the cases was left unanswered.

Prior messages left with Paulson's office about the attorneys' fees have not been returned.

According to the settlements, all parties in the suits were to pay their own costs.

Fairview Heights sued the online travel companies in 2004. The city wanted to represent other Illinois municipalities in an attempt to collect what it said were back hotel-motel room taxes the companies owed.

The suit failed to gain class certification after it reached federal court. However, Fairview Heights was free to pursue its suits alone. The last defendant group, Orbitz, settled in March.

Thus far, the city has only received about $56,000 from the Expedia defendants. The other three defendant groups have yet to pay, according to the City Treasurer and City Clerk's offices.

While the city has received the $56,000 from Expedia, the company settled with the city for $105,000. Under all the settlements, parties were to bear their own costs, raising questions about what Fairview Heights' lawyers took away from the four-year battles.

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