Media lawyer in Oakley police flap
Oakley – — With several news agencies trying to learn the names of auxiliary police officers in Oakley, one of the state's leading First Amendment lawyers joined the fray.
But the attorney, Herschel Fink, didn't want the names revealed. He wanted them kept secret.
Even more surprising was the reason.
Fink, who is one of the auxiliary officers, told village officials releasing the names could expose the officers to harm from ISIS, the radical Islamic group that has taken over parts of Iraq and Syria.
It's the latest twist in the curious case of the small town with the big police department.
The police were disbanded by village trustees but continued to operate until a state judge suspended the department's operations last month.
Trustees then sought the officers' weapons but didn't receive them until calling in the Michigan State Police to collect them.
Now the trustees are seeking the names of the reserves, but former Police Chief Rob Reznick isn't heeding their entreaties.
"He answers to no one," resident Nichole Rolfe said about Reznick. "A man sworn to uphold the law snubs his nose to it."
Reznick declined comment last week, while Fink didn't return repeated phone calls and emails.
First Amendment experts said they were shocked by Fink's stance.
"Are you serious?" asked George Freeman, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center in New York.
"Their names certainly should be open under the principle and letter of any state's freedom-of-information laws."
The central Michigan farm town of 300 had at least 100 auxiliary police officers, Reznick said in a July interview.
The volunteer officers are well-heeled out-of-towners who rarely appear in the village but whose donations covered the $38,000 police budget and some other government expenses.
In return, their status as auxiliary officers allowed them, even off-duty, to take their guns into no-weapon zones such as bars and ballparks.
"It's just an ugly world and we're paying the price," said resident Shannon Bitterman, who filed an ongoing lawsuit to learn the names of the reserves.
In September, the trustees voted 5-1 to disband the Police Department because it wasn't covered by insurance. Three days later, the police were back on the street.
The auxiliary officers had purchased $500,000 worth of coverage for the entire department.
The officers include doctors, lawyers, pro athletes and maybe a famous rock musician, Reznick said in the July interview.
But the trustees had never approved the return of the police and fought the move in court.
Circuit Judge Robert Kaczmarek issued a temporary injunction suspending police operations until after the Tuesday election. The new trustee board could then decide whether it wanted the police, he said.
Based on Tuesday's results, the police may soon be back. All four candidates supported by the auxiliary officers were elected to the seven-member board, giving them a majority.
Trustee-elect Don Banta said he and the three other winners all shared the same platform.
"Our goal is to get the police back," he said Wednesday.
But he declined to say whether he believed the department needed more than 100 auxiliary officers.
After its operations were suspended, the police failed to return its weapons, so the trustees set a one-week deadline last month.
After the deadline came and went, Trustee Fuzz Koski pronounced the items stolen.
The board asked other law enforcement for help, and the state police retrieved 31 weapons, including a 12-gauge shotgun, Glock semi-automatic pistol and Bushmaster XM-15 rifle.
"It boggles everyone's mind," Koski said about Reznick's defiance.
Earlier this year, Oakley had denied requests by The Detroit News and several other news agencies for the names of the reserves.
But the trustees voted to overturn the decision by the village clerk last month, granting an appeal by the Saginaw News.
Instead of the names, trustees received letters from two lawyers trying to change their minds.
One was from Oakley Village Attorney Richard Hamilton, who proposed the trustees ask a judge to decide the matter.
Citing an email he received from Fink on behalf of the officers, Hamilton said he was worried about the legal ramifications of identifying the reserves. Hamilton pointed out that Fink is the chief legal counsel for the Detroit Free Press.
"It would be a mistake to ignore the position taken in his email," Hamilton wrote in the Oct. 19 letter.
Enclosed with the letter, left at the homes of the trustees, was a copy of Fink's email.
The email, addressed to Hamilton and village President Pro Tem Sue Dingo, said the release of the officers' names, addresses and phone numbers was an invasion of privacy.
But the trustees never said they wanted the officers' addresses or phone numbers, said Koski.
"The Village of Oakley is on notice that any such disclosure of confidential law enforcement personnel information may subject the Village — and Board members and their advisors individually — to liability," wrote Fink.
In the undated email, Fink cited an Oct. 13 bulletin by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security that ISIS had called for attacks against law enforcement and government workers.
"To release identifying information about law enforcement personnel under such circumstances would not only result in damages against the Village, and everyone involved in such a release, it would likely be considered as having been done with malice, opening the door to punitive damages," wrote Fink.
Besides being a longtime attorney for the Free Press, Fink, 73, has represented every TV station in Detroit and most national TV networks, according to a story by the paper. He won a lifetime achievement award from the Michigan chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists in 2005 for his continual fight to preserve media freedom.
If First Amendment experts were surprised by Fink's letter, Bitterman — the resident who sued to get the names — was flabbergasted.
"He's a hypocrite," she said about Fink. "He based his entire career on the First Amendment. Now he's saying privacy is a good thing."