House speaker’s top lawyer leaves post after being behind ban on lawmakers answering Chicago Tribune questions

house speaker’s top lawyer leaves post after being behind ban on lawmakers answering chicago tribune questions

People talk outside the House Chamber while legislators are in session at the Illinois State Capitol on Feb. 20, 2024, in Springfield, Illinois.

CHICAGO — Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch’s chief legal counsel has abruptly left his job after recently released emails showed he was behind legally dubious “ethical guidance” issued to House Democrats last month that sought to block them from speaking to a Chicago Tribune reporter about “political matters” on or off state grounds.

Welch’s chief of staff, Tiffany Moy, wrote to House Democrats in an email Monday that, “This memo is to inform you that today, April 1, was James Hartmann’s last day with the Office of the Speaker. We wish James well in his future endeavors.” Welch’s office did not provide further details, saying it could not comment on personnel matters.

As Welch’s top legal counsel, Hartmann was a key official on the speaker’s staff and helped negotiate the language for some of the state’s most significant pieces of legislation, from an assault weapons ban to the elimination of cash bail.

Hartmann’s departure is the latest fallout from a memo — later deemed a “mistake” by the speaker — that was sent March 21 to members of Welch’s Democratic supermajority instructing the lawmakers not to respond to questions from Tribune statehouse reporter Jeremy Gorner. Gorner at the time was asking questions about the thousands of dollars in political contributions the speaker’s leadership team made to Welch-backed candidate Michael Crawford, who defeated veteran state Rep. Mary Flowers of Chicago in the March 19 primary.

“We want to bring to your attention that Jeremy Gorner of the Tribune has been approaching members around the Capitol today to ask questions that are explicitly political,” began the memo from Carla Jones, office manager for Welch’s communications unit. “Please advise Mr. Gorner that it is inappropriate to discuss campaign-related matters on the Capitol grounds. Please do not advise him that you will call him back or give him a number for him to reach you to discuss political matters as it is also ethically dubious.”

The memo was roundly criticized as “goofy” and “stupid” by a veteran former statehouse reporter and journalism professor in attempting to curb First Amendment rights of free speech and was viewed as a clear attempt to try to thwart legitimate newsgathering practices.

In response to a Freedom of Information of Act request from the Tribune, emails and texts among Welch’s staff, along with a timeline of events, show that Hartmann was behind the attempt to ban lawmakers from speaking to reporters.

On the afternoon of March 21, as Gorner was attempting to question lawmakers about their contributions to defeat Flowers, Hartmann sought to intercede. Less than an hour later, Jon Maxson, a senior communications adviser to Welch, issued an email to his press staff worded almost exactly the same as the verbiage Jones emailed to all House Democratic members and their staffs, emails show.

When the Tribune learned of the existence of the memo, a reporter asked Welch’s chief spokeswoman, Jaclyn Driscoll, for the legal rationale behind it, including what state laws carried ethical prohibitions against lawmakers discussing political matters. Driscoll referred the question to Hartmann, who also served as the House Democrats ethics officer, and she was asked to have him contact the Tribune to provide an explanation.

Hartmann never did respond and no such legal prohibitions exist.

Instead, in an email delivered to Driscoll in the evening of March 21 with the subject line, “Not what you were hoping for,” Hartmann wrote, “The more I think about it, the more I don’t want to justify or even discuss my ethical guidance publicly.”

In that same email, Hartmann wrote, “In retrospect I probably shouldn’t have said anything to Jeremy (Gorner, the Tribune reporter) in the first place, but further explaining isn’t going to help given their response.”

Hartmann noted the policy email sent to House Democrats that had come from Maxson “didn’t come from me.” And in an apparent response to the Tribune’s request for legal citations to back up the policy, he curtly wrote, “I’m also not an attorney for the media and I don’t do legal research for them.”

Driscoll, who had initially defended the ban as “long-standing policy” only to be informed that no such policy had existed for at least four decades, sent a “clarification” the next day.

It said the memo was “overly cautious and was not prepared or reviewed by the House Ethics Officer (Hartmann). In a subsequent meeting, it was clarified to members that nothing precludes them from answering reporter questions.”

A day later, Welch personally responded in a statement that he also shared on social media saying the memo contained “incorrect information,” was a “mistake” and he apologized to the statehouse press corps.

In responding to the Tribune’s request for relevant documents, the House FOIA officer, assistant House Clerk Brad Bolin, wrote that Hartmann and Maxson, director of the House Democrats’ communications unit and a longtime spokesman for individual members, were asked to recuse themselves.

Welch “ordered the release of all responsive records, without exemption or redaction,” Bolin wrote. “As Speaker Welch was not aware of or included on any emails, texts or other communications regarding the memo, the only responsive records are from staff.”

“Speaker Welch’s review into the handling of this matter by staff remains ongoing,” Bolin wrote.

The FOIA response said the House Republicans’ chief legal counsel, Derek Persico, was “consulted” regarding the information’s release to the Tribune. But House GOP spokeswoman Colleen King said the term “consulted” was boilerplate language and that there was no discussion and Persico was merely handed the House Democrats’ FOIA response.

Hartmann’s departure comes at a crucial time for House Democrats as the substantive negotiations over major items takes place prior to the legislature’s scheduled May 24 adjournment.

Hartmann had served as chief counsel since Sept. 15, 2022, and as an assistant counsel in the speaker’s office since 2017. Only months ago, he was designated a Chicago Lawyer “40 under 40” honoree. Taking Hartmann’s place is Kendra Piercy, who became Hartmann’s chief assistant only two months ago and has served as an assistant legal counsel for the speaker’s office since 2020.

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©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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