Fairview Heights receives another FOIA over attorneys' fees from online travel suits

Amelia Flood Jul. 16, 2009, 9:57am


The Madison County Record has filed a second Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the City of Fairview Heights asking for documents related to attorneys' fees from the city's lawsuits against 13 online travel companies.

Fairview Heights Mayor Gail Mitchell has previously said that the suits did not cost the city anything.

A previous FOIA was denied by the city but no grounds for the refusal were given. Illinois state law requires the city to cite both the statute and the statutory exemption it claims when denying a records request.

Officials in the city clerk's office have repeatedly said they have tried contacting City Attorney Al Paulson to determine the grounds but have not received calls back.

The Record was unable to appeal the initial refusal due to the lack of grounds and the statutory deadline to file an appeal passed.

The Record has asked for the documents in order to determine how much the city took away from the four years of litigation and how much its attorneys were paid. According to settlement documents released in May, the city received about $315,000 from all the defendants in total. Costs for the suits were to be borne by the parties.

Thus far, Fairview Heights has only received about $57,000 of the $105,000 it is owed by the Expedia group of defendants. It is unclear what, if anything, was paid to Paulson, St. Louis-based attorney Richard Burke and the others who worked for the city on the suits.

According to the city Treasurer's office, no other checks have been received from the other defendants, which include companies like Priceline.com, Orbitz, Hotels.com and others.

The original FOIA was delivered to the city June 9 and denied June 12. In his letter denying the request, City Clerk Joseph Kassley wrote that Paulson had advised him that the requested bills were privileged and could contain references to personnel matters etc.

Illinois's Freedom of Information Act does allow government bodies to refuse records requests including some legal documents.

According to the act, "this exemption … provided no basis to withhold records of the payments made to a law firm representing a public body … where the records named the payee law firm, designated the amount and date of each payment, contained no legal advice, and revealed the substance of no attorney-client confidence either directly or indirectly."

The Record's FOIA that was delivered to the city Thursday, asked for records related to the payments and specified it would accept redacted versions of the bills or documents in order to protect legally exempt materials.

Bodies covered by the Freedom of Information Act are not obligated to refuse to turn over records even when they are exempt by law.

Fairview Heights began its battle with the travel companies as the standard bearer in a proposed class action to recover back hotel-motel room taxes it claimed to be owed. The case failed to gain class certification in federal court. Fairview Heights pursued the suits alone. The last defendants, the Orbitz defendant group, settled in March 2009.

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