Remembering my favorite public records fight
As we wind down Sunshine Week, a national celebration of open records laws and a national push for more government transparency, I wanted to share one of my favorite stories of a public records fight — one that worked out well for the people.
It was fall 2016, and we at the Lansing State Journal were waiting for the early November sentencing of Stuart Dunnings III, the longtime Ingham County prosecutor who’d been arrested that spring for paying prostitutes and using the power of his office to coerce a woman who was not a prostitute to let him pay her for sex.
Originally facing 20 years in prison, Dunnings had pleaded guilty to reduced charges on Aug. 2, 2016, and we had filed a Michigan Freedom of Information Act request with the Ingham County Sheriff’s Office for the investigatory records in Dunnings’ case.
Dunnings had been prosecutor for 20 years, campaigned regularly with the sheriff, and was a major player in the county’s Democratic politics. We felt the records could provide important insight on whether anyone else in law enforcement or county government had been aware of Dunnings’ crimes. Sources were telling us that Dunnings’ outings with women –though, maybe people didn’t know they were prostitutes — were the worst-kept secret in the Capital City.
Timely release of the records had implications beyond the criminal case, too.
His sentencing would happen only days before Ingham County voters would pick his replacement in the county prosecutor’s office. The records could provide voters an important sense of how much of a mess the office really was, which could help them decide who they trusted to clean it up.
Gretchen Whitmer, then a former state senator representing Ingham County, had been appointed to fill out the last six months of Dunnings’ term. She had boldly declared, just days after assuming that role, that Dunnings’ crimes did not infect the rest of the office. But it wasn’t clear how thorough her review had been, or could have been. Then-Attorney General Bill Schuette had not shared his investigatory records with her.
Though the governor’s race was two years away, the consensus even then was that the race would come down to Schuette and Whitmer, and the records could provide important clues to their handling of the Dunnings case, which might give voters more insight in who they trusted to lead the state.
The county approved our request and the State Journal paid a more than $500 deposit toward what would ultimately be a more than $1,000 bill for reviewing and redacting the records in preparation of release.
However, weeks later, we were told that the records would not be released until after Dunnings was sentenced in November. We felt that was far too late.
We appealed the sheriff’s decision to the Ingham County Board of Commissioners, who sided with the State Journal and ordered the immediate release of the records.
The next day, however, we received a tip that, despite the county board’s decision, the sheriff had promised Schuette’s office that he would not release the records before sentencing unless he was court-ordered to do so. A source shared with us a copy of the sheriff’s email to Schuette’s office.
The State Journal’s lawyer drafted a harshly worded letter demanding that the sheriff follow the county board’s decision. I raced over to the sheriff’s office and handed him a copy of that letter, myself.
We had the records the next day.
I and the State Journal’s criminal justice reporter, Matt Mencarini, split up the documents — more than 500 pages — and reviewed them that night.
The following day, we posted a story showing Dunnings had, in fact, directly and indirectly pressured other county employees to aid women with whom he had relationships (read that story here: https://tinyurl.com/y57vz4gx). He’d directly and indirectly pressured employees to take it easy on those women, an obvious contradiction to Whitmer’s assertion that the office was untouched.
We also published a story about how the sheriff and Schuette tried to withhold the records from the public (https://tinyurl.com/y5qd3xek).
Those documents provided the public important information they wouldn’t have had been able to read if the State Journal hadn’t fought — and ultimately paid more than $1,000 –for them. Dunnings’ guilty plea meant there would be no potentially revealing testimony at a trial.
That’s my favorite FOIA story because it illustrates the importance of government transparency, but it also illustrates how difficult it can be to obtain those records. Most Michiganders don’t have a high-powered lawyer on retainer or an extra $1,000 in the bank to hand over to the government.
FOIA is an important tool, but the Legislature needs to make it easier for the public to use it.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.