Freedom of Information Act requests are routine, often mundane elements of the research and investigative work conducted by the Mackinac Center. That changed in March, however, when one such request from Michigan Capitol Confidential was leaked to a national leftist news site. The imbroglio that followed included some national media attention and even a feeble protest. But the actions of officials at Wayne State University — the main target of the FOIA request — confirmed that CapCon was pursuing a genuine story.
That confirmation came on April 7, when WSU removed the website of its Labor Studies Center. The Mackinac Center’s daily news site had pointed out pages on the LSC website that appeared to indicate that the university’s employees were illegally using the public resource like a political action committee for Big Labor bosses. The LSC director told MIRS News that the site was taken down in an investigation into whether there were violations of Michigan’s Campaign Finance Act.
Two days later, the website was restored with all the questionable material removed.
The incident created a national debate over whether government email accounts used by government professors should be kept secret, leading the Center to be criticized by left-wing MSNBC personality Rachel Maddow and even the editorial page of the Washington Post, sparking significant public outcry, including a bomb threat.
Scrutiny of WSU’s Labor Studies Center began in 2005 when the Michigan Chamber of Commerce filed a complaint accusing the LSC of violating the state’s campaign finance laws by promoting an increase in Michigan’s minimum wage. The Chamber alleged that the LSC had “long been viewed as a wholly owned subsidiary of the UAW.” The LSC removed the offending page, and the state’s Bureau of Elections did not pursue the matter.
In 2010, Ken Braun, managing editor of CapCon, wrote about this incident and pointed to several questionable pages still on the website, including one boasting that the LSC staff were active in helping “progressive” political groups develop strategies for gaining power, and another with instructions on how to run political campaigns for union-friendly ballot initiatives. On March 25, 2011, Braun sent a FOIA request for specific official emails sent by LSC professors using their government school email accounts. Similar requests were sent to labor studies centers at two other public universities.
Seeking to limit the request to discussions of possible illegal activities rather than seeking all of the professors’ emails (an option available under the open records law), references to the union controversy in Wisconsin were settled upon as proxy search terms that might possibly reveal discussions of misusing taxpayer resources for political ends. One such term was Gov. Scott Walker’s name. And because Rachel Maddow had recently and very publicly taken Gov. Rick Snyder to task over his handling of public employee unions, her name was also included.
Claiming the request was an assault on academic freedom, one or more professors forwarded the FOIA request to Talking Points Memo, which in turn was picked up and railed against by Maddow. A former MSU professor and a handful of union members held a poorly attended protest/press conference at the Mackinac Center’s headquarters. However, after Braun appeared on WJR’s Frank Beckmann Show to discuss the true nature of the request, items started to disappear from the LSC website. The next day the entire site was listed as “under construction.”
An explanatory essay by Braun in CapCon further quieted the debate, as did an Op-Ed in The Washington Post by President Joseph G. Lehman and Senior Editor Tom Shull, defending FOIA as a tool to root out public misdeeds.
“With evidence of past misbehavior, we asked a question about government employee lawbreaking but it became bigger than that,” said Braun. “As a result of us asking a question of our government, the newspaper where Woodward and Bernstein used to work editorialized in favor of government hiding information from the people who pay the bills. This is why Michigan Capitol Confidential exists: to fill the void when legacy media watchdogs stop barking, let alone biting.”