McNeilly: Pull the curtain back on party bosses

Greg McNeilly

This week, good government advocates are observing Sunshine Week. It’s an opportunity for state lawmakers to fix a broken transparency law that some of them have been hiding behind for years.

Today in Michigan, neither the governor’s office nor state lawmakers are subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act. In other words, unlike almost every other place in the nation, our employees at the State Capitol do business every day with the explicit understanding that we’ll never have access to much, if not most, of what they do or say.

The result is unaccountable elected officials, some of who may be more interested in meeting the selfish whims of their special interest donors than their own constituents.

One needn’t look far to find examples of Michigan party bosses conducting shady business behind their cloak of secrecy.

Just last December, House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, a Democrat from Auburn Hills, clobbered two Detroit-area Democrats, Reps. Erika Geiss and Leslie Love, stripping them of caucus leadership positions and blocking their access to basic support staff because they voted for a relatively benign bill he opposed.

“When I came to Lansing I never imagined I could be punished for having principles and voting my community and conscience,” Geiss told one Lansing news outlet.

Just a caucus disagreement? Hardly. Turns out the bill Geiss and Love voted for was opposed by trial lawyers, one of the most influential special interest groups at the State Capitol and big-dollar contributors to Greimel’s caucus.

When Greimel was asked why he took staff members away from two lawmakers who’d upset his special interest pals, he declined to answer the question. He’s declined ever since.

Voters are left to wonder: Who is calling the shots in Greimel’s caucus? The lawmakers elected to represent them or well-to-do campaign contributors with fat checkbooks?

Greimel’s email records would almost certainly reveal which establishment elites are pulling the strings in Lansing’s coatrooms, but without FOIA expansion we’ll never know.

It’s the same unacceptable secrecy that’s kept Detroiters from getting to the bottom of what state Rep. Brian Banks has been up to since he arrived in Lansing.

Banks recently settled a lawsuit with a former employee, Tramaine Cotton, over allegations the lawmaker sexually harassed his staffer and then fired him when he refused Banks’ sexual advances.

Did Cotton ever reach out to Democratic caucus services, then-Minority Leader (and current Michigan Democratic Party chairman) Brandon Dillon, or the current minority leader to report his boss’ behavior or to file a complaint? We don’t know.

We do know, though, that Greimel hasn’t punished Banks. And we know the minority leader is willing to strip staff and leadership posts from Democrats who vote against the wishes of his political donors.

How has Banks avoided reproach by the party bosses, and what have they gotten in return? We simply don’t know. That’s the way they like it.

Expanding the Freedom of Information Act to cover lawmakers and the governor’s office will force the political party bosses for the first time ever to operate in the clear light of day.

Good government reforms like these rub the establishment the wrong way. That’s the best indication of all that they’re the right things to do.

Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.