If there were an Olympic competition for Freedom of Information Act requests, Mackinac Center Communications Specialist Kathy Hoekstra would be the runaway gold medalist. In fact, the Michigan Department of State Police's record-setting $6.8 million request fee turned out to be a high-visibility event. The only thing missing was the Olympic torch.
After reading an Inspector General's report that showed Michigan's handling of federal Homeland Security grant money was marred by inadequate recordkeeping and difficulty in locating equipment, Hoekstra sent a FOIA request to the State Police for more records related to its administration of the program.
State Police responded to Hoekstra's September 2009 query nearly two months later with a bill for a jaw-dropping $6.8 million, a national record for FOIA fees, according to the transparency-tracking Web site Sunshinereview.com.
The department claimed there were more than 2 million pages related to homeland security grants, which may explain why there are problems with recordkeeping and keeping tabs on equipment. The Center was asked to make a down-payment of $3,438,151.95 for the requested materials (we declined). The ludicrous fee provided great fodder for talk radio, and Hoekstra did interviews with Frank Beckmann on Detroit's WJR AM760 and Greg Marshall on Petoskey's WMKT 1270. The story was also an internet and blogosphere sensation across the country, including a mention on the widely read Politico news and politics Web site. The Society of Professional Journalists even called, looking to include the fee in its own list of outrageous FOIA requests.
Undaunted, Hoekstra charged forward with more FOIA requests to discover how the Michigan State Police reached its staggering figure and to learn more about the department's administration of the program. The follow-up responses, which include several charges of more than $14,000, continue to generate more questions than answers about the system by which the department keeps its homeland security records and how the FOIA office calculates its fees.
Whether this is an effort to obstruct public knowledge about the facts surrounding the homeland security grant program remains to be seen. But given that the department wants $22.45 for what should be an easily retrievable, one-page document, this is clearly not the time to stand down in the fight for government accountability.