Bombshell news coming via Progress Michigan this morning detailing how Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is using fees for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to interfere with government transparency.
Earlier this year, Progress Michigan asked the state government for copies of all communications between Paul Pastorek, one of Snyder’s education advisers, and employees of the Michigan Department of Education, Education Achievement Authority and Michigan Department of Treasury. Pastorek was the state superintendent of schools in Louisiana from 2007-2011 and he has been widely criticized for his handling of schools there in the wake of Hurricane Katrina which obliterated many of the neighborhoods and their schools in New Orleans.
In response, the Department of Treasury told them they could have the information with one caveat: it came with a $52,000 price tag. The Department of Education and the Education Achievement Authority provided the information without cost.
This morning, Progress Michigan revealed that Schuette directed the Department of Treasury to use the exorbitant fees to scare off (“cry wolf” in their inaccurately chosen words) Progress Michigan:
Documents obtained by Progress Michigan through a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office is advising state departments to use a “fee approach” to deny access to records requests by charging exorbitant fees for easily searchable documents.
Portions of the document in question were supposed to be redacted, but were actually legible through the ink. The documents were part of a FOIA request seeking documents regarding department communications surrounding another FOIA request by Progress Michigan.
Here is the text of the relevant email sent by Terry Stanton of the Treasury Department on April 1st of this year (the portions in bold italics were supposed to be redacted but were clumsily left legible):
I wanted to share this with you, in case other departments received similar FOIA requests from Hugh Madden with Progress Michigan, ie “copies of all communications with Paul Pastorek, education adviser.” Given the incredibly broad nature of the request, and per advice from the AG, the response carries a $52k fee. This may cause them to “cry wolf.”
Our initial plan was to deny, given the broad nature of the request…but the AG preferred the fee approach.
“Progress Michigan has continuously called for FOIA reform and has on more than one occasion pointed to high fees as simply a mechanism to deter public scrutiny,” said Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan. “This is one of the times I wish I didn’t have to say we told you so, but we told you so. There is no excuse for this behavior and intentional lack of transparency.”
“There’s clearly an epidemic of high-level elected officials abusing and hiding behind FOIA. Over the past two years, we’ve identified numerous circumstances where FOIA laws were either skirted or broken,” Scott continued. “It’s time we did an overhaul of how our state’s open record laws operate.”
Scott finished by saying, “The man who was elected to be ‘the people’s attorney’ is working behind the scenes to deter people’s right to access public information. This is a shameful display of disdain for accountability and transparency from Bill Schuette and the Snyder administration.”
While many have suspected the state government to use excessive fees to avoid transparency, this bald-faced admission that they are doing so is outrageous, particularly coming from the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder who promised greater government transparency in his first gubernatorial campaign in 2010.
Meanwhile, the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is calling for an IRS investigation into Michigan Advocacy Trust, claiming that the group has spent millions of dollars on pro-Schuette ads without reporting its donors:
A national watchdog group is calling for an investigation into a tax-exempt Michigan political organization, saying it has spent millions on TV ads featuring Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, targeting his opponents, but failing to disclose any of its donors as required by law.
In a complaint sent Wednesday to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) claims the Michigan Advocacy Trust has violated federal law by not telling the IRS or the Michigan Secretary of State how much it has spent on political ads or who its contributors are.
The group’s spokesman had probably the most evasive response you could imagine:
But while CREW and its supporters, including Rich Robinson at the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, argue that the Michigan Advocacy Trust, or MAT, appears to be skirting the law, MAT’s founder, Lansing lawyer Richard McLellan, insists it is on firm legal footing, even if he won’t explain specifically how.
“The answer is we make no contributions and we make no expenditures,” said McLellan, who has served in various posts for Republican presidents and governors, acted as senior counsel for Schuette’s 2010 transition team and has a reputation as a campaign legal expert.
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I know the lawyers for the Michigan Advocacy Trust have given us good legal advice and we have filed all the (required) reports,” he said. He added cryptically that, in the “subtleties” between federal and state law “what the Michigan Advocacy Trust is doing is lawful.”
What a surprise that a group connected with Bill Schuette is manipulating the system to benefit their candidate. After all, Bill Schuette knows a little bit about that himself.
Adding… this news comes on top of news yesterday that Schuette’s one-man crusade to use tax dollars in his war against the LGBT community has just cost Michigan taxpayers $1.9 million. He was forced to pay the legal fees of the Michigan attorneys who fought for and won marriage rights for same-sex couples in America.