Cronyism easier to conceal in state capital than in Washington or Detroit
Jock Friedly, founder and president of LegiStorm.com, told The Washington Post last year that his work impedes corruption on Capitol Hill by adding much-needed scrutiny to what some of "the most powerful people in Washington" are doing. Since 2006, the privately run Web site has provided the names, job titles and salaries for almost 20,000 employees of the United States Congress — including all of the staff details for each member of the Michigan congressional delegation. The free database uses public information that Congress is legally required to release, but until LegiStorm began posting that information, it was only available in hard-copy reports issued quarterly by the U.S. House of Representatives and twice-yearly by the U.S. Senate.
A similar report is required for White House staff, and on July 1, 2009, the Obama administration announced that it would be the first in history to regularly make this information available on the Internet. Shortly thereafter, Congress announced that it, too, would provide staff salary information on an official government Web site.
This level of scrutiny is not available for those seeking the same information about the Michigan Legislature, Office of the Governor or state judiciary.
Michigan's Freedom of Information Act requires local governments, school districts and state agencies to release most public documents and information if requested to do so, and this generally includes the names and salaries of the employees who are paid with the public's money. When FOIA was passed in 1976, however, lawmakers carved out individual reporting exemptions for themselves, as well as the executive and judicial branches of state government. The practical effect is that while Michigan taxpayers have a right to know who has been hired on Capitol Hill and how much taxpayer money they are paid, there is no corresponding right to know the same information about the staffers hired by politicians in Lansing.
House Bill 4613, sponsored by Rep. Pete Lund, R-Shelby Township, would remove these special exemptions and require all of Lansing's elected officials to disclose all payroll details if asked. But unlike the federal standard, this bill does not require the automatic posting of this information on a public Web site, and as of this writing, there are no bills pending in the Legislature that would make such a change.
One lawmaker, Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, decided not to wait for a change in the law. In February, just over a month after the brand-new lawmaker arrived in Lansing — and even before the introduction of HB 4613 (which he co-sponsored) — McMillin posted the names and salaries of his office staff on his official state Web site. Almost immediately thereafter, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Grand Rapids, provided similar information. Since then, they have been joined by Rep. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, Rep. Kevin Elsenheimer, R-Bellaire, Rep. Paul Opsommer, R-Dewitt, and Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville.
In May, Craig McMorris, an investigative reporter for WNEM TV-5 in Saginaw, asked McMillin about this policy. The freshman lawmaker told the reporter that if his example were the norm, it could prevent cronyism and phantom salaries by public entities. A dramatic illustration of this point arose not long after, when the new financial manager of Detroit Public Schools attempted to determine if unapproved persons were on the payroll by requiring the district's 13,880 employees to show identification and personally pick up their regular paychecks. The result was 257 potential "ghost" workers who did not show up for payday and $208,000 worth of unclaimed checks.
In another recent controversy, the Detroit Free Press revealed last year that former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick hired 29 close associates - including eight relatives — as part of the approximately 100 political appointees available to the city's chief executive. Several members of past mayoral staffs were quoted as saying that this was a "significant departure" from past administrations, which had far less hiring of mayor-connected confederates. The Free Press noted that the 29 "friends and family" of the mayor experienced an average salary increase of 36 percent during a five-year period when the financially compromised city laid off nearly 4,000 nonpolitical employees, including almost 1,000 police officers.
Following Kilpatrick's resignation from office on Sept. 4, 2008, Detroit City Council President Kenneth Cockrel Jr. temporarily succeeded him as mayor and, according to a Detroit News report, swiftly appointed his wife's uncle to serve as his chief of staff. As a result of this same transition, Councilmember Monica Conyers was elevated to Cockrel's old job as council president and, also according to The News, hired her aunt to work in the council's administrative offices. On June 26, 2009, Conyers pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and also admitted in the felony plea that one of her former aides was involved.
As with Congress, when media or curious residents seek public spending data regarding Detroit politicians and their staff, FOIA gives them a powerful transparency tool to get the basic information regarding who works where and for how much. FOIA may also be used to learn the names and salaries for most of the state's 50,000-plus workforce, including personnel at the departments of Transportation, Human Services, Environmental Quality and Natural Resources, and at the offices of the Attorney General and Secretary of State.
By contrast, because of the aforementioned FOIA exemptions for the Legislature, judiciary and Office of the Governor, almost anyone seeking similar information regarding the several hundred staffers working for these politicians is at the mercy of the very people they are investigating.
Several mid-Michigan lawmakers seemed to assume that this very unique exemption was a privilege of office rather than a curious exception when WNEM's McMorris interviewed them about replicating McMillin's voluntary disclosure. Rep. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, said he would discuss names and salaries in those individual situations if "somebody from the district" called to ask, but that otherwise he would keep the information private for the protection of his staff. State Sen. John Gleason, D-Flushing, also cited privacy, offering a hypothetical example of an employee who had a legal concern such as a Friend of the Court dispute.
The chief of staff to state Sen. Tony Stamas, R-Midland, told TV-5 that his office would follow the example of what was provided by Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester. Bishop, like all members of the state Senate and the majority of House members, provides only a monthly expense report detailing single line items for such things as salaries, phone usage, postage and printing. But noting that there was no disclosure of such key details as where the calls and mail were going to and who was getting how much in salary, McMorris judged most of the lawmaker "transparency" Web pages to be "basically useless."
Even though just a tiny number of politicians have followed his lead so far, Rep. McMillin believes that all state lawmakers can and should follow his example. "It's the people's money being spent, so they ought to know where it is being spent," he told TV-5.
Ken Braun is the senior managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For additional information and an opportunity to comment on the legislation mentioned in this article, please see www.mackinac.org/10762.