WEDNESDAY, Nov. 25 — A liberal advocacy organization in Lansing is declaring a partial legal victory today after settling a years-long lawsuit over public business allegedly conducted over private emails by former Attorney General Bill Schuette and several members of his staff.
Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office today announced a settlement agreement with Progress Michigan following a 2017 lawsuit that sought to uncover a trove of emails involving public business that were allegedly sent and received by Schuette and his staff on private accounts.
And while none of those emails will actually be released, Progress Michigan is calling it a win because a portion of their legal fees will be paid through today’s settlement and reforms implemented under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will ensure that public business remains public.
“The best outcome would’ve been for the AG’s office to actually produce those emails. Short of that, we couldn’t really ask for a better outcome,” said Executive Director Lonnie Scott. “We expected those emails would turn up missing. It’s just about impossible for a new administration to come in and know exactly what happened, but this outcome is still some vindication for us.”
The lawsuit started in 2017 after officials at Progress Michigan stumbled upon emails discussing public business that were allegedly sent by Schuette and his staff on private email accounts.
The group sent a public records request asking for copies of similar emails, only to be met with a denial from Schuette that claimed the AG’s office “does not possess” those records. Progress Michigan argued it had proof that those emails existed through prior records requests, filing a lawsuit in the Court of Claims that made its way to the state Supreme Court this year.
The lawsuit, though bogged down in some procedural hiccups over the years, was primarily focused on transparency and state policy reforms, Scott explained to City Pulse. The public deserved to know what sort of business Schuette was conducting through private channels. Progress Michigan also questioned whether those private email accounts should be used at all.
Real reform arrived when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took office and formally banned the use of private email accounts for public business across her administration — including the AG’s office.
And when the Supreme Court kicked the case back down to the Court of Claims this year, it also set a precedent that private emails that discuss public business were subject to public release. Today’s settlement only concluded a series of legal victories, Scott explained.
“That’s really the big outcome here. After that unanimous decision, we felt pretty vindicated. It makes clear that those emails are subject to the Freedom of Information Act,” Scott explained.
Specific emails allegedly sent and received by Schuette no longer exist, but at least government officials will no longer be able to legally use private channels for public business, Scott said. And if they do, those emails are now clearly subject to release under state law, officials confirmed.
Though no emails will actually be released as part of this lawsuit, the settlement agreement includes partial payment of attorney fees for Progress Michigan, Nessel said in a statement. Scott declined to discuss any specific dollar amounts or additional terms of the settlement.
Nessel’s office also reaffirmed today that emails requested by Progress Michigan are “missing” from department records and that officials simply can’t determine whether they were maintained in accordance with record retention laws or proper disposal schedules. The issues have since mostly been corrected by added legal clarity and by banning private emails for state business.
"Schuette and his inner circle, including people who have since moved into high profile positions like U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, likely illegally destroyed the emails we requested or lied about their existence to shield them from public view,” Scott also contended in a press release.
Added Nessel: “I appreciate Progress Michigan bringing attention to this important issue, and, as a result of its lawsuit, the State revised its FOIA procedures to reflect best practices. The state serves the people, and they deserve to know what we are doing and how we are doing it.”
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