U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Illinois county drops subpoena for government watchdog’s communications

Incident Details

Date of Incident
March 25, 2020

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Legal Order Venue

A portion of the subpoena demanding work product from Edgar County Watchdogs

— Screenshot
March 25, 2020

Illinois-based government watchdog blog Edgar County Watchdogs received a second subpoena for communications and documents relating to articles involving an ambulance service operating in Effingham County, Illinois, on March 25, 2020.

Edgar County Watchdogs received the first subpoena as part of a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by Lakeside EMS, LLC, against the county in August 2019. That lawsuit was dismissed in September pending the results of a state case brought against the ambulance service by Effingham County. As a result, the subpoena was dropped.

The most recent subpoena was filed as part of the state suit, and is identical to the first: It orders the Edgar County Watchdogs to produce communications or documents exchanged with Lakeside CEO Jerrod Estes, as well as any “employee or agent” of Lakeside or the county. It also orders the turnover of copies of articles written or generated relating to Effingham County, county Board Chairman Jim Niemann or Lakeside.

Edgar County Watchdogs co-founder and reporter John Kraft told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that they planned to contest the subpoena under Illinois’ reporter’s privilege law.

Kirk Allen, the blog’s other co-founder and reporter, told the Tracker in September 2019 that Edgar County Watchdogs had been pursuing a Freedom of Information Act violation claim against the county for two years, pressing for the release of documents related to the ambulance service investigation.

Attorneys for Effingham County Philip Lading and Zachary Merkle did not respond to requests for comment.

According to emails reviewed by the Tracker, the county’s attorneys dropped the subpoena without prejudice on April 7, after the blog’s lawyer informed them that they had not complied with the “special witness” doctrine. The doctrine requires that the party seeking testimony must first state the specific testimony the reporter is expected to give and demonstrate how it is not only relevant, but necessary to the party’s case.

The Tracker has documented multiple other subpoenas against Edgar County Watchdogs in 2019, including a subpoena for their communications and documents relating to the College of DuPage and multiple subpoenas for the group’s Dropbox contents. While the latter two were dropped in February and July 2019, a motion to quash the former is still pending.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].