The Snyder administration had long been thought to be using fees to process FOIA requests as a way to avoid transparency and to scare off inquisitive journalists and private citizens from poking around in their (public) affairs. Then, last October, the fine folks at Progress Michigan got definitive proof that FOIA fees were being wielded as a weapon against transparency. As I wrote in my earlier reporting on this, 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.
Progress Michigan later obtained an email that proved that Schuette’s office was using a “fee approach” to dissuade them from pursuing the matter. In an email to Sara Wurfel and David Murray, communications staffers in Gov. Snyder’s office, along with Carla Robert, FOIA coordinator of the Treasury Department, Treasury Department spokesperson Terry Stanton had this to say (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.
Today, CNN is reporting that it has smashed into the FOIA fee barrier in Michigan in its efforts to report on the Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak in Flint:
Michigan’s health department has demanded thousands of dollars to release documents related to one of the worst outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease in U.S. history, which some experts say could have been prevented had state officials acted sooner.
In response to a public records request from CNN, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services asked for payment of $11,071 in order to search for and “prepare” emails and documents in which state officials discussed the disease and its spread. […]
An attorney with the health department said processing CNN’s request for documents and emails referencing Legionnaires’ in the county would burden the department’s epidemiologists, some of whom would have to search their individual accounts and decide for themselves which emails were relevant.
The attorney said the lack of a central data system in the department drives up the costs of processing these requests. A letter sent to CNN said searching for and locating the material would cost $9,000 with another $2,000 in duplication fees.
CNN narrowed the request to ask for emails on lead and Legionnaires’ from three officials but the department still has not provided the documents.
Mlive journalist and News Leader Jen Strayer Eyer made this wry observation on Facebook:
CNN gets a taste of what it's like to be a journalist in Michigan, where public officials try to scare the press with…
Posted by Jen Strayer Eyer on Thursday, March 3, 2016
It’s time to end the use of FOIA fees as a roadblock to transparency in Michigan. Now that it’s gotten national attention, perhaps we’ll begin to see some change. I only wish it hadn’t taken so long for the story of the Snyder administration’s profound lack of transparency to make the national news.