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Gretchen Whitmer (again) vows to open records, toughen lobbying rules

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist sitting at a table
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist talked with reporters Wednesday at their executive office in Lansing. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
  • Michigan governor renews vow to expand public records law to include her office and the Legislature 
  • Whitmer says she wants to revisit lobbying rules amid allegations against former House Speaker Lee Chatfield 
  • She first proposed both in 2018 but has not followed through

LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Monday she remains committed to expanding the state’s public records law and tightening lobbying rules even though she failed to follow through on those first-term campaign promises.

Speaking with reporters Wednesday, Whitmer said she wants the state’s Freedom of Information Act to be “equally applied” to lawmakers and her own office, both of which are currently fully exempt from the public records law, unlike in the vast majority of other states.

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The governor said she also wants to “learn” from the ongoing criminal investigation into former House Speaker Lee Chatfield and address potential “loopholes” in state lobbying laws that may have allowed for the Levering Republican to allegedly favor certain special interests. 

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“We're going to work with the Legislature to improve transparency, accessibility and to make sure that it applies to all the branches,” Whitmer said in a year-end media roundtable. 

Michigan is one of only two states that prohibit the public from requesting records from both the Legislature and governor’s office. Whitmer has not yet honored her 2018 pledge to open her own office up to public record requests if the Legislature did not change the law. 

The Republican-led House last year again advanced legislation that would have subjected the governor’s office to FOIA and created a new and separate transparency law for the Legislature. But negotiations stalled in the Senate, where outgoing Majority Leader Mike Shirkey had stressed his desire to shield any communications between constituents and lawmakers. 

“Part of the reason that we never found common ground with legislators is because they didn’t want to subject themselves to the same standards,” Whitmer told reporters Wednesday, arguing that creating a separate statute for the Legislature “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

With fellow Democrats poised to take over both the House and Senate next term with two-seat majorities, Whitmer said she hopes “we’ll have much more productive conversation (and) be able to get something on the books.” 

“We’re doing it in one fell swoop, and we're all going to play by the same rules.” 

Sen. Ed McBroom, a Vulcan Republican who has helped push for greater transparency in Lansing, said prior efforts to create a distinct public records law for the Legislature were about respecting the “separation of powers.”

McBroom said he is concerned an expanded public records law would not survive legal challenges if it allows for judicial review of a legislative decision to deny a request, which would create a "constitutional problem."

“Around the country where other states have litigated placing their FOIA statute over the Legislature, they have frequently run into (legal) problems.” 

Under legislation previously passed by the House, any legislative decision to deny a public records request could be appealed to the administrator of the Legislative Council, which is appointed by legislative leaders.

McBroom said he isn’t necessarily encouraged by Whitmer’s renewed interest in expanding public records access but is encouraged by his conversations with Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, who has suggested a deal is possible. 

Moss did not immediately respond to a voicemail seeking comment. 

“I've pursued this with two governors now who've paid plenty of lip service to supporting the concept,” McBroom said. “I’ve been through the mill a lot of times on this and suffered a lot of disappointment. Sen. Moss believes that everyone is sincere this time and that we're really going to get it done, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him and that optimism."

Whitmer, who will begin her second term in January, said the burgeoning Chatfield “scandal” suggests it is also time to tighten the state’s lobbying laws. 

State police began investigating Chatfield, the former House Speaker,  late last year after his sister-in-law accused him of sexual assault when she was a minor, an account she first publicly disclosed in interviews with Bridge Michigan

Attorney General Dana Nessel is now leading an expanded investigation into Chatfield and an alleged “criminal enterprise” in Lansing, as described in search warrant affidavits obtained by The Detroit News but denied to other media outlets under a court ruling requested by Nessel’s office.

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Chatfield, through his attorney, has denied any criminal wrongdoing. 

The ongoing investigation “involves a series of former Michigan officials, current officials, lobbyists, governmental appointees, at high levels, and other governmental employees,” Assistant Attorney General Michael Frezza said in a Nov. 21 court hearing, arguing against public release of related affidavits. 

As a candidate in 2018, Whitmer proposed "tough new lobbying rules," including real-time spending reports and a five-year "cooling off" period that would prevent legislators from immediately becoming lobbyists after they leave office. 

Those proposals "probably still make sense," Whitmer said Wednesday, telling reporters she wants a larger review of potential lobbying "loopholes" that perhaps contributed to" the Chatfield allegations. 

"There's probably lots that none of us knows yet, so I think we've got to understand it, learn from it, and fix areas where we can,” she said.

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