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Nessel calls for MSU to release 6K emails to help state Nassar probe

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel told a room of journalists and members of the public that she is "deeply ashamed" that Michigan is the only state that exempts the governor, lieutenant governor and state lawmakers from Freedom of Information Act requests.

"We are not opening the doors to state government," Nessel said Saturday. "In fact, we are locking them with deadbolts, and then we are nailing boards across them, and then there’s a moat … that’s what FOIA feels like with our state government."

Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks to members of the public and the media at FOIA Fest, an event about the Freedom of Information Act, hosted by the Society for Professional Journalists at Wayne State University on Saturday.

Nessel was the keynote speaker at a day-long festival focused on how to reform FOIA exclusions to the executive and legislative branches of government, developing a state ombudsman or independent commission for FOIA appeals, and reform excessive fees, delays and loopholes in the state's system.

Nessel, who took office in January, has called for more government transparency while noting Michigan's current FOIA restrictions.

"I can’t think of anything more important than to have the public have all the tools available to them and know how to get information," she said. 

Kat Stafford, a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, introduced Nessel, saying the attorney general was invited to the FOIA Festival, hosted at Wayne State University by the Society of Professional Journalists, because she's been advocating the importance of government transparency for Michigan residents. 

Current and former members of the The South End student newspaper at Wayne State University, which is funded by the university but is editorially independent, share difficulties of filing FOIA requests within their own campus and how they studied student press law after being restricted.

Nessel also used the event to take a few shots at the Trump administration, saying the lack of transparency in Michigan is nothing compared to what is going on at the federal level.

"While I am embarrassed on various levels for our lack of transparency in Michigan, but what’s happening in the federal government right now is absolutely unacceptable," Nessel said. "Without these constructs in place, it will be the end of America as we know it."

Nessel also addressed the investigation of John Geddert, a former USA Gymnastics coach who oversaw a Michigan club where multiple victims of sexual predator Larry Nassar trained, Nessel said her office continues to try to get documents Michigan State University has withheld under attorney-client privilege.

MSU initially withheld 7,500 documents under attorney-client privilege and it appears as though her office is not going to see 6,000 of those documents because the university has "fought this office every step of the way."

Dana Nessel speaks at FOIA Fest at Wayne State University on Saturday, October 12, 2019.

She called it disingenuous that MSU would ask for the attorney general's office to investigate and then refuse to provide the evidence they need. 

"We’ve taken this as far as we can. To fully complete our investigation, we absolutely need to have those emails," she said. "I would ask the board of trustees to reconsider and provide us with those 6,000 plus emails so we can actually complete our investigation."

Beth Konrad, president of the SPJ Detroit chapter and adjunct professor at WSU, said the idea for Saturday's FOIA festival was aimed to build greater awareness and understanding of FOIA and Michigan's Open Meeting Act for better government transparency. 

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_