By PATRICK J. WRIGHT
Freedom of Information Act requests tend to be fairly routine and innocuous, in a procedural sense. A recent Mackinac Center FOIA request, however, has drawn some media attention. The center has a long history of using this important tool for monitoring our government and has no intention of curtailing that use in the future.
Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, like the federal law it was based on, was passed in the years immediately following the Watergate scandal, where government officials committed crimes in an attempt to cover up a politically related criminal break in. The Michigan Legislature at that time stated the purpose of the law:
“It is the public policy of this state that all persons … are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and public employees, consistent with this act. The people shall be informed so that they may fully participate in the democratic process.”
A Michigan court later enhanced the description of FOIA’s purpose: “to establish a philosophy of full disclosure by public agencies and to deter efforts of agency officials to prevent disclosure of mistakes and irregularities committed by them or the agency and to prevent needless denials of information.”
The center has used the FOIA law in a variety of ways. FOIA requests were used to obtain the collective bargaining agreements and health insurance information for Michigan’s 550 school districts. Assembled into databases, these documents have been used thousands of times by reporters, school officials and residents throughout the state. They have also been used by Michigan Capitol Confidential to debunk various school districts’ erroneous claims about funding cuts.
The Mackinac Center’s annual survey of Michigan school districts that privatize noninstructional services is also compiled through responses to FOIA requests.
After Gov. Jennifer Granholm highlighted a Grand Rapids film-studio project, the center used FOIA requests to begin an investigation that exposed an alleged attempt to defraud the state out of $10 million. The investigation into Hangar42 Studios has led to criminal charges being filed. Similarly, the results of a FOIA request triggered the center’s work on behalf of home-based day care workers who were forced into a government-employee union. In this case, emails showed that the Granholm administration worked with public sector unions to illegally divert into union coffers millions of dollars meant to aid low income families.
Currently, the center has issued a number of FOIA requests for information related to a proposed massive illegal teachers strike. And the center has been investigating whether a public university is attempting to bury its investigation of a professor who engaged in apparent plagiarism in a widely cited public policy paper.
It is an unfortunate fact that the mere enactment of FOIA has not stopped state and local government officials from committing crimes. For instance, a recent brief filed with Michigan Supreme Court by the center and the Michigan Press Association arguing for a broad reading of FOIA, set out numerous school district embezzlement scandals involving millions of public dollars and a $100 million settlement related to state prison guards sexually abusing female inmates.
Public awareness and public policy in Michigan have both benefited from the center’s FOIA work, whether through investigative reporting on government misconduct or through the accumulation of data to provide for accurate and timely analysis. Thanks to a tool that allows citizens to keep track of the affairs of their government, you can expect both to continue.
(Patrick Wright is senior legal analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute based in Midland.)