WOODSTOCK – An Internet blogger is suing the McHenry County Sheriff, an attorney within the department and its FOIA officer, asking a judge to make internal records available for his inspection.
First Electric Newspaper publisher Pete Gonigam requested, through the Freedom of Information Act, documents relating to an internal investigation of Undersheriff Andrew Zinke, but was denied access to the records. He filed a lawsuit in McHenry County Court this week.
Late last year, Sgt. John Koziol alleged in court documents that Zinke tipped off the owner of a Crystal Lake business mentioned in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation into the transportation of thousands of pounds of marijuana. A McHenry County Judge later denied Koziol’s request for a special prosecutor, and State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi said Zinke broke no laws.
But where Gonigam’s lawsuit stems from is the sheriff’s office internal investigation that determined Zinke had not violated any of the department’s general orders.
After being denied access to the records from the sheriff’s office, Gonigam appealed to the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor, who ultimately sided with the blogger in a nonbinding opinion stating the investigation file was a public record.
In court documents, Gonigam says the sheriff’s office has not responded to his phone calls or emails since the Attorney General’s opinion was issued.
Don Leist, an equal employment opportunity officer for the sheriff’s office and co-defendant in the lawsuit, said the Attorney General’s Office opinion is just that – its interpretation of the law. He said the sheriff’s office stands by its denial.
“The sheriff is not going to make a practice of giving out personnel files of employees,” Leist said.
“I’ve learned to just ignore those blogs. They’re full of erroneous and half information.”
Gonigam is asking a judge allow him to inspect the records, and is seeking civil penalties up to $5,000 for each of the two alleged FOIA violations. A court date is set for July 10.