Column: Officials should use government email
Using private email accounts to conduct state business has landed a number of elected officials in hot water in recent months. But those scandals haven’t stopped Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office from doing the same — or from trying to cover it up after we caught them red-handed.
As part of our work to hold elected officials accountable, Progress Michigan often files Freedom of Information Act requests to bring backroom deals to light and uphold the public’s right to know what their government is doing and how it’s being done.
During the course of these public record requests, we discovered no less than 21 instances of the attorney general himself and his high level staff using private emails to conduct public business — a clear red flag for government transparency advocates everywhere.
But when we filed a new FOIA request specifically for these emails last September, Schuette’s office denied the request, claiming that it “does not possess” the records — even though we have 21 pages of documentary evidence to the contrary. When we appealed their decision in November, we were denied.
That’s why we were compelled to file a lawsuit against Schuette in April. The public has a legal right to access private emails when they are used to conduct public business, as they were by Schuette and his staff. And by blocking public access to those records, the attorney general is in violation of state law.
If the attorney general’s office lied about possessing these records, it broke the law. And if Schuette’s office really did not possess the records at the time of our request because they deleted them, that may be illegal as well. Either way, Schuette has a lot of explaining to do to the court and to the people of Michigan.
Sadly, this is not the first time that Schuette’s office has attempted to keep the public in the dark. In 2015, we discovered a state email outlining how the attorney general routinely used the “fee approach” to charge exorbitant fees to fulfill FOIA requests, effectively discouraging the public from seeking access to information.
Democracy dies in darkness, as Detroit’s legendary Judge Damon J. Keith reminds us. We at Progress Michigan will continue fighting to disclose these emails and keep the promise of a government of the people, by the people and for the people alive in our state.
Lonnie Scott is executive director of Progress Michigan.