House blocks access to entire report on Courser, Gamrat

Chad Livengood, and Robert Snell

Lansing — The Michigan House of Representatives’ business office has blocked access to its entire report of an investigation into misconduct by state Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat because the Legislature is exempt from public records laws.

The House Business Office on Friday denied The Detroit News access to the full report and supporting evidence it turned over last week to Speaker Kevin Cotter’s office detailing official misconduct and misuse of taxpayer resources by tea party Republicans Courser of Lapeer and Gamrat of Plainwell.

Under House policy, documents retaining to the chamber’s financial records are open to public inspection. But all other records can be kept secret because the Legislature has exempted itself from the state Freedom of Information Act it imposes on all other levels of government in Michigan.

The governor’s office also is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Brandon Dillon blasted the release of a redacted report.

“Rather than providing accountability and transparency, Republican House Speaker Kevin Cotter is increasingly making this so-called investigation look like a cover-up itself,’ Dillon said in a statement.

Cotter’s office has said the misconduct report was turned over to the Dickinson Wright law firm last week to review the House Business Office’s preliminary findings and remove any confidential information about House employees.

“In response to your recent request for a copy of the preliminary report on the Representative Courser and Representative Gamrat investigation and the supplemental documentation, the House will not be releasing the information at this time,” House Business Office director Tim Bowlin wrote in a letter to The News.

The House Business Office seized computers, emails and paper records from Courser and Gamrat’s offices in the days after The News’ story broke open the Capitol scandal.

In his denial letter, Bowlin said the outside law firm’s “independent review” of the report will “ensure compliance with human resource regulations.”

A June 6, 2007, House Business Office policy exempts from disclosure records containing personal financial information about House employees, their telephone bills, records protected by attorney-client privilege, emails sent within the House of Representatives and “any other document or record protected from public disclosure by agreement, contracts, House rule or law.”

Cotter spokesman Gideon D’Assandro has said the House Business Office turned up scores of documents unrelated to the investigation, including communication between Courser and Gamrat’s offices and their constituents.

A special House committee created to investigate Courser and Gamrat will have access to the full records and could choose to release more of the documents and audio recordings Graham turned over to the House Business Office, D’Assandro said.

“The committee will get the big pile of evidence and whatever they need to dig into in the hearings, they’ll bring up,” D’Assandro said.

The denial came as two state Republican lawmakers said they were drafting legislation to subject the Detroit Institute of Arts to the state Open Meetings and Freedom of Information acts.

The push by Republican state Reps. Ken Goike of Macomb County and Jim Runestad of Oakland County last week came as the DIA was under fire again from public officials for plans to award bonuses, raises and other compensation to museum executives.

The attempt sparked cries of hypocrisy from some people because the Legislature is exempt from FOIA and the legislative effort illuminated holes in the public’s access to information.

Transparency is good, but the push for greater access should be uniform, said former state Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods.

“When you start picking and choosing, in my mind, not only are you being hypocritical, “she said, “but the citizenry has a right to say ‘wait a second here.’”

The House Business Office’s denial exposed shortcomings in state laws governing access to information about the government and public institutions, Cogen Lipton said.

“The whole paradigm needs to shift to disclosure first and then you can fight over exemptions” to FOIA laws in Michigan, she said.

The House Business Office’s denial illustrates weaknesses in the state’s freedom of information law, said Robin Herrmann, general counsel for the Michigan Press Association.

“It does suggest that maybe the legislature should take a look at finding ways to be more transparent, like some of their peers in other states,” Herrmann said.

(517) 371-3660