Michigan Lawsuit Uncovers Deceptive Tactics To Foil Public Records Requests

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is in hot water after a lawsuit uncovered emails between the Governor’s Office and consultants that were written using the Greek alphabet in a plot to make public records searches next to impossible. The lawsuit was filed by residents who claim the state has been indifferent toward addressing long-standing lead contamination in public water supplies.

Government agencies frequently use a variety of tactics to prevent public documents that could be harmful to policymakers. The use of the Greek alphabet is a deliberate choice because Michigan does not have the ability to search for documents using that language. Records requests would need to be searched manually, a process that could take years and would have an exorbitantly high cost.

Whitmer, a Democrat who was elected in January to a second term, has refused to reverse a long-standing policy that exempts her office from honoring Freedom of Information Act requests despite claiming to believe in transparency.

The lawsuit filed by residents of Benton Harbor, Mich. claims that the city and state officials have known for years that the municipal water supply is contaminated. The residents claim that the state has offered little in the way of help and has provided solutions they know would be unsuccessful. The suit was filed in November 2021, on the same day that a judge awarded residents of Flint, Mich. a $626 million settlement over similarly contaminated water.

The email only came to light during discovery in the beginning stages of the lawsuit. The unusual policies around FOIA requests in the state would have resulted in the email being practically impossible to discover through any other means.

Lead levels began to show an increase in lead in 2018 and by 2020, levels were significantly above federal standards. In some cases, the water showed lead at 60 times the amount considered to be harmful. Nearly all of the municipal water lines either contain lead or are of galvanized steel connected to lead. Lead poisoning can cause a wide array of health problems including abnormal brain development in children and numerous types of cancer.

Benton Harbor residents believe the state’s lack of response to the crisis is racially motivated. About 80% of Benton Harbor is Black. Similar sentiments were made by residents of Flint during that city’s efforts to undo contamination after the water supply was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River.

The coded email from energy department consultant Andrew Leavitt to energy advisor Kara Cook indicated that the state knew about the problem in Benton Harbor and had “not learned from Flint” once the message was decoded.