How We Use FOIA to Hold Government Accountable

Happy ‘Sunshine Week’ 2017

In simple terms, government is a group of people using resources that belong to the public. Since these funds were earned by taxpayers, they have a right to know exactly how their government is using their money.

Sometimes government entities do things that conflict with what’s in the best collective interest of the public, many times in secret. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, there was an increased interest in making governments more transparent. In response, politicians created the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, as it’s commonly called. FOIA is perhaps the most important tool that journalists and the public have to keep governments accountable. These laws differ by state, but they all give citizens the right to request and receive information from public entities.

March 12-18 is “Sunshine Week,” a national event celebrating “your right to know” information about your government. To show the importance of this week and government transparency laws, here are some of the key ways we’ve used Michigan’s FOIA law to hold public entities accountable.

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  • From 2006 to 2012, the state of Michigan transferred millions of dollars each year from day care providers and home caregivers to unions to use for political purposes. Most of the 100,000 people affected had no idea they were even in a union. Nevertheless, unions skimmed tens of millions of dollars in dues from government subsidies meant for the poor and disabled before legislators finally put a stop to it. We were able to expose this tragic scheme largely from public records we obtained through FOIA.
  • Every year, taxpayers are spending millions of dollars on “union release time” and “pension spiking” schemes. Public records requests to all 540 school districts turned up the dozens of school districts that redirect money meant for educating students to release time. They pay union officials and release them from all of their public duties, such as teaching. Instead, these officials work full-time for their union on the taxpayer’s dime. And union officials across the state have also entered into agreements where they pretend to work for school districts while actually working for a private union, in order to gain extra pension benefits — which taxpayers fund, of course.
  • The Flint water crisis rocked the state in 2015 and 2016. It was hard for anyone to know who was responsible and how much blame-shifting was going on. Our simple FOIA was delayed for four months when we tried to get to the bottom of some of the issues. (Other reporters eventually broke key stories.) We’ve filed a lawsuit against the state to ensure openness going forward.
  • FOIA requests to every school district showed that less than 0.001 percent of all tenured teacher are ever fired, including those who were caught kissing and assaulting students, using drugs and committing other criminal acts. The Legislature eventually passed a bill making it easier to get rid of bad educators and, today, districts report far fewer of these problems.
  • After the president of the University of Michigan made disparaging remarks about supporters of President Donald Trump, we requested documents to understand why a university president would make disparaging comments about some of his students. The university took more than 100 days to give us four documents, but denied others related to the request. Given our commitment to government openness, you shouldn’t be surprised about this: We’re now in the middle of a lawsuit about it.
  • In Michigan, school districts must use merit as the main driver for teacher compensation. But most of the state’s largest school districts ignore the law, instead basing pay strictly on degree-level and seniority. We learned of this through FOIA requests we sent to school districts.
  • The Detroit Land Bank’s blight demolition program has come under scrutiny and was subject to a federal investigation for wasted funds and inefficiencies. An open records request showed that the person accused of wrongdoing was simply transferred to another department with a pay cut, while taxpayers are out over $800,000.
  • Detroit Public Schools borrowed and spent more than $500 million to upgrade facilities. Despite the massive influx of funds, more than dozen schools (which each received millions for upgrades) were cited for health and safety violations. We used a FOIA request to show how much they got and what the violations were.

Though Michigan’s FOIA laws are powerful, they still have flaws. The state should close loopholes that allow public entities to delay giving information for months. Both the governor and the Legislature should be subject to the law, a practice other states follow. And legislators should continue to pursue changes that make as much information public as possible, especially when it can be done easily and cheaply electronically.

Without government transparency laws, it would be very difficult for reporters to do their jobs. And thanks to tools like FOIA, regular citizens can help hold public officials accountable.

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