Dems: Apply open government law to Legislature

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — House Democrats used last week’s scandal-prompted ouster of two tea party Republicans as another argument Wednesday for ending a Michigan Freedom of Information Act exemption lawmakers and the governor enjoy.

“Over the last several weeks, we have seen, once again, the problems that come when government makes decisions in a shroud of secrecy with little oversight or accountability to the public it is supposed to serve,” said House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel, reading from a prepared statement.

Emails, internal communications and other records shared among lawmakers and within Gov. Rick Snyder’s office are immune to public disclosure under provisions of the state’s “sunshine” law. Local elected officials, in contrast, must answer public requests to examine their emails and records.

Democrats want to change the situation, and Republicans are open to the change within limits.

The latest call for an expansion of the FOIA law comes in the wake of the scandal that led to the resignation of Rep. Todd Courser, R-Lapeer, and expulsion of Rep. Cindy Gamrat, R-Plainwell.

The House business office initially released what Democrats described as a “sanitized” version of its report that said the two engaged in deceit, mistreated staff and misused public resources to cover up their extramarital affair. The business office also initially denied a Detroit News request for its full report.

The full investigative report eventually was released under pressure from the media and Democrats, who refused to vote on the recommended expulsion of Courser and Gamrat until Republicans agreed to seek an attorney general-led criminal investigation of the two lawmakers.

Democrats still charge that House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, and GOP leaders were guilty of “lack of oversight and secrecy” amidst the allegations against Courser and Gamrat.

Greimel and Democrats continue to argue there should have been a bigger inquiry, including disclosure of what Cotter knew and when. They wanted to subpoena testimony from two staffers who recorded key conversations involving Courser and Gamrat and last spring notified the speaker’s office of problems in the two lawmakers’ unusual shared office arrangement.

The two former aides to Courser and Gamrat provided recordings and information to The Detroit News, which broke the story that Courser sought to engineer an a cover-up of their affair with a widely circulated “false flag” email accusing him of sex with a male prostitute behind a nightclub.

At a press conference Wednesday, House Democrats said they wanted to make Michigan’s law the same of those for lawmakers and governors in 48 other states.

“We should be willing to live by the same openness and transparency that we ask our locals to abide by,” said Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield.

In making their pitch, the Democrats cited other examples showing, they said, why the law should change:

■Questions raised about Snyder’s now-defunct NERD Fund, fed by secret donors and once used to pay the salary of a top Snyder adviser and confidante.

■The bid process that led toward a decision by the Senate’s GOP leadership to relocate members’ offices from their current building to space in a new structure. The cost, when interest is included, will be $134 million. The plan has been raked by House critics.

Gideon D’Assandro, Cotter’s press secretary, said majority Republicans are willing to consider changes in the sunshine law. But he said the law is designed to protect “a lot of taxpayer-sensitive data” constituents share with their elected representatives.

“Anything that’s proposed would have to be carefully written” to protect such data from public scrutiny, D’Assandro said. Greimel said he believes it’s possible to do that.