AG Bill Schuette calls for increased university transparency
Michigan Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette has called for a constitutional amendment to force universities and colleges to fully follow the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information Acts.
In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity gave Michigan an "F" grade in its State Integrity Investigation, which assessed state government accountability and integrity.
In their report, the Center stated "the boards of Michigan public universities ... claim they are exempted from provisions of the Open Meetings Act" based on interpretations of the state constitution and earlier court rulings.
In 2016, the Detroit Free Press brought a lawsuit against the University of Michigan after the paper found only 10 percent of the matters on which the university board had voted from January 2013 through February 2014 received public discussion.
The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the university's practice of holding closed-door board meetings.
In a separate tweet, Schuette also called for increased accountability by proposing the governor be able to appoint board members at all public universities, in what appeared to be a reference to the ongoing sexual assault scandal at MSU.
MSU is one of three public universities in Michigan where the Board of Trustees is not appointed by the governor, along with Wayne State and the University of Michigan. On Saturday, Schuette referred to his office's investigation into MSU as the department's "top priority."
Progress Michigan, a liberal watchdog organization, called Schuette's ethics plan a "sham" in a recent blog post.
Hugh Madden, communications director for Progress Michigan, said while the organization supports efforts to increase transparency, he has many issues with Schuette's tweets.
"Great on anyone for suggesting more accountability and transparency at all levels of government, but people should walk the walk and not just talk the talk," Madden said. "In this case, if Bill Schuette is the one calling for that, we think he should start in his own office."
Madden said his organization had encountered repeated difficulties in seeking transparency from Schuette during his time as Attorney General. In 2015, Progress Michigan filed a FOIA request seeking documents from the state Treasury Department regarding department communications concerning a prior FOIA request.
In that process, Progress Michigan obtained redacted emails indicating Schuette's office had advised the Treasury to use high FOIA fees to discourage requests.
"Given the incredibly broad nature of the request, and per advice from the AG, the response carries a $52k fee," Terry Stanton of the Treasury Department said in an email, which was sent to communications officials in the Treasury and Gov. Rick Snyder's office. "This may cause them to 'cry wolf.'"
Madden said the "cry wolf" remark was likely a reference to Stanton's concern that Progress Michigan would publicize the amount being requested. That portion of the email was redacted, but still visible through the ink, according to the organization.
Stanton also indicated in that email the Treasury Department was planning to deny Progress Michigan's request outright, but instead followed the advice of Schuette's office to go forward with the fee request. Two days after that email was authored, Progress Michigan received a response asking for $52,109 to process the FOIA request.
The organization has also brought a lawsuit against Schuette, seeking to gain access to private emails sent by Schuette and his staff that were allegedly used to conduct state business.
Andrea Bitely, Schuette's director of communications in his role as Attorney General, said she could not respond to The State News' request for comment because Schuette's tweets were made in his capacity as a candidate.
Schuette's campaign office could not immediately be reached for comment.