Analysis: State department doesn't live up to Gov. Snyder's transparency pledge

By The Center for Michigan

“As Governor, I will ensure that government is open, fair, and accountable to the citizens by making Michigan a national leader in transparency and ethics.” That's what Rick Snyder pledged on the campaign trail two years ago.

Yet last month, the Michigan Department of Human Services gave two completely contradictory answers to a fairly straightforward policy question:  How many former welfare recipients reapplied for cash assistance after being removed by Michigan's new welfare reforms?

When Bridge Magazine asked that question, DHS required a formal, written Freedom of Information Request. Then DHS extended its response deadline by two weeks. Then DHS completely denied Bridge Magazine's request, claiming it "does not possess records falling within the scope of the description provided in your request, or by another name." In other words, DHS implied that the records Bridge wanted didn't exist.

Yet, while the DHS pleaded ignorance to us, a DHS attorney unintentionally provided all kinds of detailed answers to our questions in a legal proceeding.

DHS formally denied our information request on June 21.

Six days earlier, Joseph E. Potchen, a state Assistant Attorney General representing DHS in an ongoing welfare reform lawsuit, revealed in a letter entered in the court docket that:

1) More than 100 former cash assistance recipients whose cases were terminated due to a  60-month welfare time limit "had been approved."

2) "Almost 5,900 applicants have been or will be referred to JET."  JET is a work training program which most cash assistance recipients must participate in to receive aid. Applicants wouldn’t be referred to JET if they hadn’t reapplied -- meaning a minimum of almost 5,900 families that had “timed out” of cash assistance had reapplied.

3) DHS had created a detailed process to assure that welfare reapplications - the very basic details Bridge Magazine sought in its FOIA request - "are being processed both accurately and efficiently."  Potchen wrote... "DHS has set up a special email mailbox for TC60 cases, and DHS has dedicated staff to process these emails. After the email is received by central office, generally one of two things may occur: 1) if the applicant is not eligible for any reason other than TC60, then a denial notice is issued; 2) if it appears that the applicant is eligible, but verifications and/or a Jobs, Education, and Training (JET) program referral are needed, then central office issues an override for a verificiation checklist (VCL) and a JET referral. The appropriate notice is then issued. In cases requiring a VCL or JET referral, if the verifications are received or the applicant successfully completes the JET orientation, then the local office notifies central office and the case is ready for approval."

Yet, six days after Potchen described those details in his June 15 letter later entered into a court record, DHS told Bridge Magazine it "did not posses records" to document the number of families who reapplied for cash assistance between April 1 and May 31 and the status of those applications (including approvals and denials).

To review...

Snyder Campaign Promise... "As Governor, I will ensure that government is open, fair, and accountable to the citizens by making Michigan a national leader in transparency and ethics."

Today's reality in one of Snyder's state government departments... DHS claimed data does not exist six days after its own legal counsel provided such data as part of correspondence in legal proceedings.

The government watchdog group The Center for Public Integrity rates Michigan among the worst in the nation for transparency and accountability. The study gave Michigan a grade of “D” for access to public information, and an “F” for executive, legislative and judicial accountability.

Bridge is appealing the denial of our FOIA request.

(Editor's note: On July 11, DHS filed more court documents offering even more data. According to the most recent court filing, 7,317 families reapplied for benefits; 1,774 have been approved and 618 denied; with the rest pending or referred to the JET program. More than 2,000 additional families that exceeded time limits in recent months have been left in the cash assistance program pending the outcome of the court case. That document was filed July 11 - six week after Bridge's initial FOIA request and five days after DHS received an appeal of the FOIA denial.)

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Thu, 07/12/2012 - 10:20am
Thank you to the writers and the Center for writing about things that need to be discussed in Lansing.While I agree that the state must bring our expenses under control. To complete leave a segment of our population out in the cold is simply wrong. I'm not saying to just give anyone anything. I'm saying we should be able to help those to take care of themselves. Do we need to spend so much at the top and nothing at the bottom? Isn't there some medium that could be agreed to? Why isn't it right for all of us to sacrifice some? Hasn't everyone benefited from the policies of the past? Statesmen not politicans have the backbone to do what is right and not just cater to their contributors. Aren't our legislators elected to serve all the people? Oh, The art of good governance includes the art of compromise. What's missing inour government? State and Federal.
Scott G.
Thu, 07/12/2012 - 1:51pm
I'm not clear on something. When you say "Almost 5,900 applicants have been or will be referred to JET", as gleaned from the attorney's letter to the court, did the letter say that the 5,900 applicants referred were from the TC60 group, or could that have been the number of ADC applicants (in total for the department) that had been referred? That would seen important and isn't specified in your report.
Ron French
Fri, 07/13/2012 - 10:57am
5,900 families from among those who had lost benefits because of time limits are being referred to JET. Thanks for requesting the clarification.
Mike R
Thu, 07/12/2012 - 4:10pm
I commend Bridge for its tenacity and resourcefulness in exposing the hypocrisy of our elected officials and their minions. While I am almost ready to write off Gov. Snyder as just another politician, the true test of his promises of fairness, openness, and accountability will be his response (or lack of same) to this embarrassing "teachable moment". Reversing the DHS's position, welcoming public scrutiny, and issuing a sincere apology would go a long way toward convincing me he deserves another chance. Ignoring, stonewalling, or staying the course would be conclusive proof that, to quote Geoffrey Fieger, "we've been duped again".
Thu, 07/12/2012 - 5:50pm
Keep it up! The words of the Governor are not followed by his actions. In fact the administration has successfully fought for and received (with what can be seen as partisan judicial assistance) the right to take over the majority black cities and schools -- in secret. The Open Meetings Act be dammed. Other than a bankruptcy trustee, not since the US Armed Forces took over Germany and Japan has such power over a people been so exercised. At least a trustee in bankruptcy has a duty to reorganize the estate as quickly as possible and can go after the bond holders as well as the employees. And if the local vote of nearly a million black citizens had been effectively taken away by an "emergency manager" in Mississippi in the '60s, you don't think the US Justice Department wouldn't have been all over the state in a heartbeat? Yet Holder doesn't even acknowledge a problem under the voting rights act and there is no outrage in the population generally. I suppose it is understandable given everyone's concern about their own economic situation, but 50 years from now will people look back on this period as a drift toward Fascism? The problem the cities are in did not happen overnight and was not exclosively of the cities own doing. The feds empowered escape from the cities for a better life in the suburbs by building highways to accommodate a commute. The suburbs benefited from the influx of families and new growth that enhanced their tax base at the expense of the older housing stock left in the city. The state has been squeezing the dollars to every school district in the state for decades. This causes problems first and foremost in the poorest districts. Where is the transparency in the administration's discussion of these not new problems? Transparency might help the entire state understand the scope and origins of the problem and get behind a solution. Instead, they have chosen to scapegoat the cities and the cities employees and invite politically connected friends to takeover and solve these myriad problems. Carte blance you are being invited to establish charter schools, run this department or that and come sip from the public trough. This simply looks like partisan politics and is most disappointing.
Thu, 07/12/2012 - 6:53pm
Why should it be a surprise that this Governor's public pronouncements are frequently at odds with his actions or those of his cabinet agencies? The record of this administration during the past eighteen months is replete with similar examples. Perhaps this administration still has not ironed out effective and accurate communication channels – or more likely it is compiling a dubious record of disengenuity, in comparison to past administrations.