FOIA gone bad: Man labeled 'recurrent requester' ends up on wrong side of the law

Ann Maher Aug. 8, 2012, 9:37am

Van Hoose

Joe Avellone and Brad Van Hoose on the dock.

Editor's note: Phone calls to Caseyville Mayor George Chance, Caseyville Trustee Kerry Davis and SWIC public information office have not been returned.

A handicapped accessible fishing dock overlooking a small lake at the Caseyville Park was a thoughtful addition last year to the five acre park on the west side of this small town, population: 4,248.

But what it cost to build - estimated at $37,000 - pales in comparison to the personal toll Brad Van Hoose says he has suffered at the hands of public officials in trying to figure out the particulars of this taxpayer-funded project.

Van Hoose, 45, of Belleville has family roots in Caseyville. He is civic-minded and a political figure of sorts – a Republican precinct committeeman in St. Clair County. And until recently, he was a student at Southwestern Illinois College (SWIC) studying to become a teacher so he could raise his standard of living after working his adult life in interior and exterior home maintenance. He has friends who are contractors in Caseyville, some of whom raised the question as to why they were not given an opportunity to bid on the dock project.

The question motivated Van Hoose to take action.

His story starts with three separate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed with the Village of Caseyville last September seeking information that would explain how much the dock cost and where the funds to pay for it came. Upon denial of those requests (the village labeled him a "recurrent requester") in October 2011 - and unbeknownst to him then, Van Hoose says - a criminal investigation was opened by the Caseyville Police Department in November. He said a reporter told him in the spring that he was accused of threatening to kill the wife and daughter of a village trustee.

When asked to confirm if those accusations exist in a police report, Caseyville Police Chief J.D. Roth said he would have to investigate.

"I'm not familiar with any details," he said.

He also said that the standard for requesting police reports is to file a FOIA request with the village clerk, the acting FOIA officer.

When asked if an investigation of Van Hoose was still open, Roth said there is a case under advisement with the St. Clair County State's Attorney office.

State's Attorney Brendan Kelly was contacted for comment on Wednesday, but he did not immediately return a phone call.

Van Hoose vehemently denies threatening anyone. He said he found out he was being criminally investigated earlier this year after the village released some documents following an order by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

One of those documents included a November 2011 police report accusing Van Hoose of sending harassing emails to village officials.

On Feb. 3, Madigan sided with Van Hoose in his appeal of the denials of his FOIA requests and ordered the Village of Caseyville to turn over documents pursuant to Van Hoose's requests: copies of board meeting minutes, village hotel committee meeting minutes, contracts, invoices and records related to the village's hotel fund.

After Madigan issued the ruling, Van Hoose thought the matter was finally resolved and he would get the answers he was looking for regarding the dock. Van Hoose, however, faced more trouble with the authorities.

As part of Caseyville's investigation, Van Hoose says personal student information that should have been protected by SWIC was shared with Caseyville Police.

In April, he was arrested and handcuffed in the school library on two disorderly conduct charges by public safety officers at SWIC, an event he said was humiliating.

The conduct deemed disorderly by SWIC stemmed from Van Hoose sharing with personnel at SWIC's public safety office, a news article and an unsigned, eight page letter purportedly from Caseyville police officers listing complaints about Chief Roth.

On July 25, State's Attorney Kelly dropped the SWIC disorderly conduct charges.

Now, nearly a year since his quest for Caseyville public documents began, Van Hoose said he doesn't at all regret what he set out to do, in spite of what he calls continued harassment by Caseyville officials.

"Nobody should be afraid to ask for any public document," he said.

Van Hoose, who stands 5'10" tall and weighs approximately 265 pounds, said he is astounded by the intimidation attempts made against him by various public officials.

"If they will intimidate a guy like me, what will they do to a person of less physical stature," he said. "That's how I felt. I felt that I have got to see this through."

Now, Van Hoose is considering filing suit against SWIC claiming his civil rights were violated after the college divulged "non-directory" information, such as his student schedule and photo ID, to Caseyville Police without a judicial order or subpoena.

He said he met with an attorney last week and they are considering a lawsuit that would seek to have SWIC change its policy regarding the unjustified disclosure of personal information. In addition, he would like for the college to say it made a mistake. He said he also intends to seek monetary damages over his derailed educational goals, but he said he does not have a figure in mind.

A grievance Van Hoose filed over SWIC's release of information to Caseyville Police was denied by the college in March. A letter of explanation to Van Hoose stated that the release of his information was authorized under an exemption in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

One of those exemptions stipulates "health or safety emergency."

Van Hoose said that SWIC's contention that its disclosure was justified under "emergency" provisions is "nonsense."

"I expected the treatment from Caseyville," he said. "I didn't expect it from SWIC. I thought they had higher standards."

He said his lawsuit will be aimed at SWIC, but he predicted the college would add the Village of Caseyville as a third party.

In the meantime, Village Attorney Duane Clark filed a Suspicious Activity report against Van Hoose on July 31 with Caseyville Police.

According to Van Hoose, he was taking a break from cutting grass at St. Stephen's Catholic Church in Caseyville (located adjacent to Village Hall) as he has done for the last five years. On the day in question, the high temperature was more than 100 degrees.

The report describes, "Someone behind a tree":

"Van Hoose was standing behind the tree furthest south on the church property," states the Suspicious Activity report. "He was out there for an extended period of time watching the Village Hall. He then walked to the parking lot behind the church and left in a green station wagon."

The Dock

As it turns out, the 20 x 40 foot handicapped accessible dock in Caseyville Park may be in violation of building codes, as well as the American Disabilities Act.

Joe Avellone, a U.S. Marine paralyzed during a training mission in Hawaii in 2002, and one who likes to fish, looked at the dock last Friday pointing to some flaws in the design and construction of the platform.

Avellone, of Belleville, said there are three things wrong with the dock – it's never been load-tested; there is a significant gap under the railing which could catch wheelchair casters and the height of the railing is too high - it should measure 34 inches or lower. The railing is 42 inches high, he said.

Avellone said that he has been approached by an investigator from the U.S. Attorney's office who had questions about the dock's ADA compliance.

However, U.S. Attorney spokesman Jim Porter said he could neither confirm nor deny that such an investigation related to the dock is under way.

Van Hoose, who accompanied Avellone on Friday, said other problems with the dock include the pilings which were driven into sand rather than being poured with concrete. He also said there was no building permit issued, and no architect signed off on the project.

"It was built like it was someone's backyard project," he said.

Padgett Construction of Swansea was project contractor.

Ron Padgett said he did not recall off hand how much his company was paid for the job. He said his company did submit a bid for the project.

According to Van Hoose, the village received a $20,000 grant from the county Parks Grant Commission.

Through information he received from the Parks commission, Van Hoose said Padgett was paid $12,800, and that the remainder of the grant money was used for materials.

He said that village employees and equipment were used "in-kind" for the project.

He also estimated that a concrete pad and an asphalt path leading to the dock, as well as the village's in-kind labor applied to the project, add another estimated $17,000 to the total cost.

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