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).
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.)