Rep. Bradford Jacobsen, R-Oxford, wants to open the books of private organizations.

Politicians using a public hearing to “ambush” a political foe is hardly rare, but eyebrows were raised a couple weeks ago when Republican State Rep. Bradford Jacobsen from Oxford attacked an organization called Sunshine Review, whose “radical” mission is to increase government transparency.

The group had been invited to testify at a hearing of the House Oversight, Reform and Ethics Committee, of which Rep. Jacobsen is a member.

Sunshine Review's advice was sought because it maintains a website that rates the overall transparency of state and local governments, and posts information about state budgets, the salaries of politicians and other related subjects.

According to Mirs News, Sunshine Review's editor, Kristin McMurray, was giving testimony when Rep. Jacobsen went after her organization. He questioned how the organization funds its operations and called it “hypocritical” for not sharing the names of contributors. "If you're telling us we need to be transparent I think you need to be transparent also," Rep. Jacobsen was quoted as saying.

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McMurray responded this week in a column published by The Detroit News, which may have given Rep. Jacobsen the feeling that someone “brought a knife to a gunfight,” figuratively speaking. Here is part of what she wrote:

“Government transparency is about how public officials, such (as) Rep. Jacobsen, spend taxpayer dollars . . .  (It) is a safeguard that protects citizens against abuses of power and misuses of money.

“Transparency is not a duty of private citizens to one another, nor is it a regulatory standard that must be met before free speech is deemed permissible . . . (or) a set of hurdles to be cleared before a citizen is allowed admission into the public square — or even to a hearing in Lansing.”

McMurray explained that her organization honors a policy called the "Donor's Bill of Rights" developed by national organizations of charitable fundraisers. The policy is rooted in a landmark 1958 Supreme Court case, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v . Alabama. Government officials in Alabama wanted to know who was contributing to the NAACP’s civil rights campaigns, and the court wisely judged this to be a bad idea.

Government transparency is hardly as contentious today as outlawing bigoted Jim Crow laws was then, but as Rep. Jacobsen’s attack shows, in some government precincts it can be controversial, making donors’ desire for privacy understandable.

McMurray echoed some of the arguments from that case in her Detroit News comments:  “The idea that the Michigan Legislature is entitled to review the private donations of citizens who testify before the committee is appalling, wrongheaded and a bit totalitarian.”

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