Whether you're a conservative, liberal, moderate, tea partier or progressive, there is one thing we can all agree on: We all want government to be accountable to the public.
One of the best ways to understand the inner workings of government and hold elected and public officials accountable is through open records laws. The Freedom of Information Act or FOIA allows watchdog groups, citizens and reporters to request and access public documents.
That's why we were shocked on Wednesday to find out that the Michigan Department of Community Health had illegally deleted all email communications from its director despite the fact that state law requires them to remain on file for two years.
Here's a little background: In Michigan, lawmakers and the governor are exempt from FOIA. In order to help the public see how government is working for them, we decided to request all email communications between department heads and the Governor and his chief of staff. It's a roundabout way of doing it, but it is one of the only ways to get around the exemption in Michigan law.
Through this process we've discovered a number of things and have posted all of the documents for the public to view. One of our biggest findings was the fact that the Snyder administration quietly cancelled a $98,000 fine against the Aramark Corporation, an out-of-state company that has a prison food service contract with the state, after a series of contractual blunders.
Our latest FOIA request revealed another bombshell of information, but this time it's the lack of information that was damning.
On Wednesday, after a month of waiting for the Department of Community Health to respond to our FOIA request, our attorney was informed that the emails didn't exist because they had been deleted upon the director's retirement.
That's illegal. Under Michigan law, the emails that we were requesting must be kept on file for at least two years. In some of our other FOIA requests we've received emails dating back even further than that two-year timeframe. Deleting them before that time expires is a misdemeanor.
As a former journalist, I feel sick thinking about the fact that public records could very well be gone forever. We don't know what was in those emails. We don't know if there was anything nefarious or illegal going on in those conversations. That's not the point. The point is public records were illegally destroyed.
The question that needs to be asked is, why? Why were these records destroyed? Who ordered their deletion? Those are questions that are burning in our mind and we're determined to find out.
The department might as well have set a filing cabinet of public records on fire or shoved hundreds of pages of communications through a paper shredder. In this case, someone pressed delete and the public's right to know went completely out the window.