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Gov’t transparency is for you, not just me

A 2008 report from a national group had pegged Michigan’s indigent defense system among the bottom of the barrel, and, by 2016, a state-appointed commission to raise standards for that system was just getting up to speed.

To figure out what those court-appointed attorneys do, fellow Lansing State Journal reporter Matt Mencarini and I decided to look at the bills the attorneys submitted to the three counties that made up the State Journal’s core coverage area. We submitted a request through the Michigan Freedom of Information Act for a year’s worth of bills from Ingham, Eaton, and Clinton counties.

Eaton and Clinton counties handed over the documents no problem, even setting Matt and me up in courthouse conference rooms so we could pore over the thousands of documents.

But Ingham County wanted to reject or request, saying the bills were exempt from disclosure because they included some attorneys’ tax ID numbers and the names of some defendants who had since been granted privacy protection under the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act.

We appealed the denial to the county Board of Commissioners, arguing that FOIA requires governments to maintain records that are exempt from disclosure separate from records that should be given to the public, so the tax ID numbers and defendants’ names shouldn’t be on those bills in the first place.

We also argued that Article IX, Section 23 of the Michigan Constitution mandates all government financial records be handed over to the public upon request.

The county board sided with us, though we reached an agreement through which the State Journal had to pay some astronomical amount — it was around $1,000, if memory serves — for the county to copy all of the bills and redact names and other information they felt should be withheld.

The documents were well worth the fight. The attorneys’ invoices often detailed every phone call they made, email they sent, meeting they held, hearing they attended. Through those bills, we were able to paint a pretty complete picture of the lackluster effort many of those attorneys put into offering the constitutionally mandated criminal defense the accused deserve, and the pittance those attorneys were paid by the government.

The records showed that, while some attorneys went above and beyond for their clients — one lawyer noted that he’d bought a suit for his client — the public defenders almost never tried to take a case to trial, often waiving preliminary hearings. One attorney had reached out to prosecutors to begin plea deal negotiations before even meeting his client and asking if he was innocent or guilty.

That has real-life consequences. Around the same time we were working on the attorneys story, Matt learned that the Ingham County Sheriff’s Office had flooded, destroying evidence in hundreds of cases. If any of the court-appointed attorneys for those defendants had bothered to force prosecutors to show their hands in a preliminary examination or trial, the prosecutors would have been caught flat-footed and there’s a chance those defendants would have been freed. Instead, their attorneys worked them into plea deals that gave them a criminal record that would follow them the rest of their life.

I think that story perfectly illustrates everything that’s right and wrong with government transparency laws in this state.

Without the laws, Matt and I wouldn’t have been able to tell that story of what some people would call a human rights violation right on Michigan soil.

But it took an expert knowledge of statutes and a lot of time, energy, and money for us to get the records, and that shouldn’t be the case.

While journalists use FOIA and the Michigan Open Meetings Act to crank out copy, the laws weren’t designed for us. They were designed for you, the taxpayer, to better understand what the government is doing with your money. From property disputes to civil suits to business dealings to elections, transparency laws allow Michiganders to interact with their government fully armed with the information they need to do so effectively.

But, first, you have to know how to use the law.

That’s why The News is proud to host Attorney General Dana Nessel at the Alpena County Library on Tuesday for a seminar on transparency laws. Our reporters will be there and we’ve specifically invited Northeast Michigan government leaders, but we hope you’ll be there, too, to learn how you can make sure government’s not keeping secrets it shouldn’t be keeping.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.

If you go

∫ WHAT: Seminar on the Michigan Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts, hosted by Attorney General Dana Nessel

∫ WHEN: 1 p.m. Tuesday

∫ WHERE: Alpena County Library, 211 N. 1st Ave.

∫ COST: Free

∫ INFO: The News and Michigan Press Association sponsor Nessel’s visit to talk about government transparency. The event is open to the public.

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