Michigan’s records law delayed public disclosures about Clare grant
- Michigan officials initially denied a public records request by Bridge Michigan, citing an on-going investigation.
- Bridge successfully appealed and pushed the state to release the records
- Those records showed political concerns played a key role in funding a $25 million state grant intended for a nonprofit created by a former aide to former House Speaker Jason Wentworth
Since Bridge Michigan first began reporting on a now-paused $25 million grant once touted by former House Speaker Jason Wentworth, it has reported new details, including the revelation this week that state officials knew the nonprofit seeking the money was “well connected politically.”
Getting those details hasn’t been easy — and often taken weeks of delays, in large part because of Michigan’s public records law.
Officials with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services denied two separate Freedom of Information Act requests filed May 8 by Bridge Michigan reporters, claiming the department is exempt from releasing emails and documents about the grant.
- Emails: Michigan moved fast on ‘well connected politically’ $25M Clare grant
- Michigan: Double payment concerns suspended $25M Clare health campus grant
- Records: Firm of ex-aide to Michigan speaker paid $820K within days of grant
- ‘Red flags’ surround $25M health campus pushed by ex-Michigan House speaker
- Michigan paid $10M before ‘red flags’ froze ex-House speaker’s pet project
- Timeline: How $25 million deal to ex-House aide raised ‘red flags,’ faltered
In doing so, the state cited a portion of the law allowing officials to withhold information that is part of an ongoing law enforcement investigation, citing an inspector general review of the project.
The Office of Inspector General is tasked with investigating fraud, waste and abuse within the department. By statute, it is defined as a “criminal justice agency” that can refer cases to prosecutors but doesn’t have arrest power.
With the assistance of the Michigan Press Association, Bridge appealed the denials, citing public interest and expense in the project.
On June 23, the health department reversed its earlier decision and approved the request.
“Upon further review of the responsive records, the Department has determined that the records will not interfere with the active investigation by the Office of Inspector General into this matter,” wrote Matthew Rick with MDHHS.
Two months after the initial request, Bridge Michigan on July 11 received initial documents.
They included financial records that showed that a for-profit company created by the former aide to Wentworth, David Coker, Jr., had billed the nonprofit Complete Health Park — which he created as Wentworth and lawmakers were considering the grant — more than $820,000 in the first days of the project.
On July 18, the department released the other records, mostly emails among MDHHS staff.
They showed how a grant administrator expedited the grant because of political connections and how lawmakers, including the one who sold 70 acres to Complete Health Park, had expressed serious reservations about the project.
The department had initially approved one of the requests and charged Bridge $330.56 for the records — which it paid — before changing its position May 30 and denying it, as it had the other request.
Michigan refunded Bridge the money for the records.
Michigan has received low marks for government transparency and is one of only two states in which the Legislature and the governor’s office are exempt from open records requests.
“I always felt the purpose of (FOIA) was to promote transparency,” said Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager of the Michigan Press Association which is pushing for FOIA reforms. “(But) I think that sometimes government and governmental entities use it to stall and delay.”
Although MDHHS released the records, McGraw pointed out that Bridge would have failed had it asked the Legislature to release Wentworth’s emails, for instance, because they are exempt. “You wouldn’t get them,” she said.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, elected in 2018, and fellow Democrats who now control both branches of the legislature have said they would improve transparency provisions — including as recently as March — but have not yet done so.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 10:48 a.m. Aug. 11 to reflect that Michigan refunded Bridge Michigan for a public records request.
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