House Dems: AG Schuette Playing Fast and Loose with FOIA Laws

Document shows attorney general advocating fees to deter FOIA requests
Thursday, October 8, 2015

LANSING – Emails exchanged between Gov. Rick Snyder’s office and the Michigan Department of Treasury show that Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette advocates using exorbitant fees to discourage Freedom of Information Act Requests, and indicate that the state illegally redacted that information in violation of Freedom of Information laws. These abuses underscore the need to pass legislation that would place the governor’s office and state Legislature under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act Laws, which House Democrats are advocating.

“FOIA laws are put in place to protect the public and to hold the government accountable to the people,” House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel (D-Auburn Hills) said. “Instead, we see the attorney general trying to skirt the law by directing state workers to charge ridiculously high fees for document searches. To make it worse, the state then tried to cover that up by redacting the information – which is a clear violation of existing FOIA laws. In trying to discourage a FOIA request, the governor’s office, attorney general’s office and Department of Treasury show why we need to strengthen our FOIA laws now more than ever.”

The incident stems from a FOIA request made by Progress Michigan, in which they requested state emails exchanged between education advisor Paul Pastorek and various state departments. Progress Michigan was told it would have to pay more than $52,000 in fees in order to receive that public information, which is subject to FOIA laws.

In a subsequent FOIA request, the state released an email exchange between two Michigan Department of Treasury officials and three members of Gov. Snyder’s office (including his press secretary and deputy press secretary), in which sections were redacted in black ink. However, the original text could still be read through the ink.

Redacted sections included the statements, “per advice from the AG, the response carries a $52k fee.  This may cause them to ‘cry wolf’,” and “Our initial plan was to deny, given the broad nature of the request…but the AG preferred the fee approach.” (Redacted sections are in bold type). Under Michigan FOIA law, only certain information in a FOIA request can be redacted, such as information that would compromise an individual’s privacy, interfering with law enforcement or endanger the life of a law enforcement officer. Communications between state officials about how to get around FOIA law is not exempt.

“The governor’s office and state attorney general’s office are playing games with the public’s right to know, and that cannot be tolerated,” said Rep. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), who advocates for the passage of House Bill 4283, which would subject the Legislature and governor’s office to FOIA laws. “Elected officials have a duty to be transparent in their dealings with the public. There’s no reason for the governor or Legislature to play by separate rules.”