State to pay $10K to settle public records dispute

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The state will pay $10,000 as part of a settlement in a 3-year-old case regarding a public records request that was denied by the former attorney general. 

Attorney General Dana Nessel on Wednesday announced her office had reached a settlement with Progress Michigan, a liberal advocacy group that sued the state after Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette denied a public records request in 2016 seeking the emails of 21 department employees believed to be using a personal email account. 

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel

The emails, Nessel said Wednesday, are missing from the department's records and officials are unable to determine whether they were kept according to retention and disposal windows. 

"Prior to the lawsuit the State of Michigan did not have a policy prohibiting the use of private emails for official business," a statement from Nessel's office said. "The state now has a policy that requires all state business to be conducted by state email."

A copy of the settlement included a requirement that Nessel issue the press release sent to media Wednesday.  

The settlement also required Progress Michigan to refrain from refiling its 2016 public records request and includes $10,000 to pay for a portion of the group's attorney costs and fees.

The case was dismissed without prejudice Tuesday.

Nessel said she appreciated Progress Michigan bringing the suit, which was filed while Schuette was still attorney general. 

As a result, "the state revised its (Freedom of Information Act) procedures to reflect best practices," Nessel said. "The state serves the people of Michigan, and they deserve to know what we are doing and how we are doing it.”

Progress Michigan executive director Lonnie Scott celebrated the settlement in a Wednesday statement and promised to "continue to fight for transparency and accountability in government, including real FOIA reform that includes the legislature and governor’s office."

The subject of whether the emails exist was argued at the Michigan Supreme Court earlier this year, when Nessel's office attempted to dismiss the suit based on a missing piece of paperwork that was later included in the suit. 

Progress Michigan argued the emails still existed because they'd gained copies from other sources of emails sent by Schuette's employees from personal accounts and that the department had stalled release with procedural delays.

The Michigan Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeals dismissal of the suit in July and remanded the case to the Court of Claims, where it remained until Wednesday's announcement.