Mayor Anthony Calderone said something quite stunning two weeks ago. In fact, in the wake of a visit from federal agents bearing a subpoena, several village hall officials were speaking in the same curious terms along with his Honor, as if repeating a mantra. The federal subpoena, Calderone and others told the Review, was “a glorified Freedom of Information Act request.”
Wow. I had to read that quote twice to be certain I’d actually got it right. That’s a bit like saying that cops are glorified crossing guards. Our village officials should know better than that, which I think they do. The difference between FOIAs and subpoenas isn’t just like comparing apples and oranges, it’s like comparing bottle rockets and rocket propelled grenades. One is a potential inconvenience. The other has the ability to destroy you, or at least alter your life forever, and not in a good way.
Perhaps Calderone is being so flip because he has nothing to hide and so nothing to fear. This will then have been much ado about nothing. Or perhaps the Mayor is just whistling past the grave yard- exhibiting false bravado in the face of justifiable fear. Whatever the case, the almost assured result of that August 3 subpoena is that the feds will eventually find out what if anything is buried around here, and most likely who put it there.
As someone who’s filed a few Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIAs), allow me to point out several ways that FOIAs are distinct from subpoenas. And, while I’m at it, how newspaper reporters are distinct from prosecuting attorneys.
FOIAs, as all reporters quickly find out, can be denied on a number of grounds. Subpoenas can’t, since they aren’t requests. They’re demands for the immediate surrender of materials required in an investigation. Federal and county governments don’t wait around seven business days for their materials, either, and they don’t ask for copies. They take what they want, and they take the originals. FOIAed material is also subject to redacting, that is, editing that blacks out information considered too sensitive or invasive of privacy. Prosecutors serving subpoenas couldn’t care less about sensitivity or privacy. They get to peruse everything, including those little gems of information that can constitute the basis for a future indictment.
As for the effects of FOIAs versus subpoenas, perhaps Village Administrator Mike Sturino, a lawyer, can instruct Calderone on the distinction between the court of public opinion and a court of law. The ramifications of a FOIA pale in comparison to those of a subpoena. Material from FOIA requests usually gets discussed at editorial meetings, whereas materials from subpoenas often get discussed before a grand jury. Information from FOIA requests frequently ends up in newspaper articles and editorials. Information gained from subpoenas ends up peppering the cold, hard edged prose of affidavits that accompany indictments. While having your assorted missteps and moments of poor judgment splashed on newsprint may be annoying or embarrassing, it can’t hold a candle to seeing your name following the chilling phrase “United States of America v.”
Of course, no one is saying that Calderone or anyone else in Village Hall has done anything wrong. Subpoenas are, in and of themselves, simply information gathering devices, and not all people who receive them are subsequently indicted. But that information gathering is anything but benign. And Forest Park and Calderone’s relationship with disbarred lawyer and influence peddler Anthony Bruno is legitimate cause for both press and prosecutor curiosity.
There is the possibility that Forest Park tax payers have been taken to the cleaners via exorbitant fees for Bruno’s services. Bruno clearly has had his snout deep in the public troughs of several municipalities and other governmental entities in and around Forest Park for years. And it’s not clear that he actually performed any services that justify the generous six figure payments he received.
That’s certainly a matter to be discussed in the court of public opinion, which can’t please Calderone, who wants to run for reelection in 2007. But what has to be scaring the hell out of him, if he has any sense or awareness of recent events, is that the federal government may decide well before that time that his conduct with Bruno is a matter to be explored a court of law as well. Should that come to pass, our mayor will get a harsh lesson in the major consequential differences between snoopy reporters and government investigators, the biggest one being that while this paper may raise questions that eventually costs Calderone his job, the fruits of a subpoena could conceiveably cost him his freedom.
The Review recently asked the village for comment on the invoices Bruno submitted for his services. Calderone said that he’d need more time to research the matter, which is his prerogative, since Review managing editor Seth Stern isn’t an Assistant U.S. Attorney.
Heck, Stern, like his predecessor, has to go through Sturino every time he’d like to request the privilege of a conversation with a village employee. Since early spring Sturino has kept a muzzle on those department heads- some of whom have 20 and 30 years working in their fields.
Ironically, that ongoing state of affairs merely underscores yet another distinction between the Forest Park Review and the office of the United States Attorney for Northern Illinois. If and when Patrick Fitzgerald’s people decide to deliver Grand Jury subpoenas to any of those department heads for any reason, it’s a safe bet the feds won’t be in the mood to allow Sturino to speak for any of them.
“The village will obviously cooperate fully in any investigation,” Sturino did tell the Review two weeks ago. That’s good, since unlike the village’s dealings with this paper, the village doesn’t have any choice. The federal government, it’s quite clear, is already “researching the matter,” and they’re not gathering material for any newspaper article.
Or filling out any FOIAs.