By Alison Flowers
Medill Innocence Project
The Illinois State Attorney General forced the Chicago Fire Department to reconsider turning over documents it had denied Northwestern University journalism students supported by the Medill Innocence Project. The students appealed to the attorney general’s office last October after the fire department rejected a Freedom of Information Act request they submitted earlier that month as part of an ongoing investigation into a 1997 Chicago murder case. Despite the appeal, the students’ FOIA request was ultimately denied for a privacy exemption—but only after the attorney general’s office determined the fire department failed to properly consider the students’ initial request.
In January, Tola Sobitan, an assistant attorney general, wrote a letter to the fire department and the Medill student, Lianna Trubowitz, who submitted the request on behalf of the investigative journalism class taught by Medill professor Alec Klein, director of the Medill Innocence Project. “Based on the information provided, we conclude that the [Chicago Fire Department’s] initial denial of Ms. Trubowitz’s October 6, 2011, FOIA request pursuant to 7(1)(a) and 7(1)(b) of FOIA was inappropriate.”
In September 2011, the Medill Innocence Project launched an investigation into the case of 32-year-old Ariel Gomez, a Chicago man who is serving time for the murder of 32-year-old Concepcion Diaz.
The students requested ambulance, EMT, fire department, pre-hospital care reports, hospital and medical records from June 13, 1997, the night of the fifth Chicago Bulls championship. It was the same night Diaz was shot in a raucous crowd. The students sought to determine if there had also been a hit-and-run victim treated that night to examine Gomez’s claim that the car he was riding in struck a pedestrian around the time of Diaz’ death. Gomez said he had attempted to destroy the vehicle to cover up the hit-and-run accident. It was this cover-up that contributed to his bench trial judge’s rationale that Gomez could have fired another gun that night and hid it. No such gun was ever found, nor was any evidence presented that Gomez had a second gun that night. The ballistics between Ariel’s gun police found and the bullet found in Diaz’ body do not match.
The fire department denied the students’ FOIA request on the grounds that ambulance run reports are exempt under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Under Klein’s guidance, the students appealed the decision to the state attorney general’s office under 2010 changes to the FOIA designed to “provide Illinois residents with a more open and accountable government,” according to the attorney general’s website.
The fire department later determined it does not have the documents the students requested, which, according to the attorney general’s office, should have been the grounds for denial.
Larry Langford, director of media affairs for the fire department, said his office does not receive many requests for old documents.
“Going back that far you aren’t going to find that much fruit on that tree,” Langford said. “Staff won’t know until it’s researched. I think someone might have made the assumption that because it’s medical records it might have be covered by HIPAA. That may not have been an accurate assumption.”
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 makes many personal medical records unavailable to the public.
Langford said in an interview for this article that he plans to look into the matter to make sure FOIA staff complies with the attorney general’s recommendation.
Meanwhile, students supported by the Medill Innocence Project continue to investigate the Gomez case.