FOIA-Seeking Conservative Group Awaits Fulfillment of Court Order by Michigan Secretary of State

by Bruce Walker


A conservative group on Tuesday demanded Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson comply with the Michigan Court of Appeals ruling to release unredacted documents in response to their Freedom of Information Act request.

The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled against Benson last Thursday, requiring her office to release the documents in response to a FOIA initially sought by Michigan Rising Action.

At issue was a fine administered by Benson’s office against Build a Better Michigan, a group that spent $2.4 million on ads Benson determined was coordinated directly with then-gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer. Some of those ads were found to have violated Michigan campaign finance law by directly referring to Whitmer’s candidacy.

The investigation began during the tenure of former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican, in 2018. After assuming office in January 2019, Benson, a Democrat, fined Build a Better Michigan $37,500. Whitmer, who went on to win office, was not fined at all.

At that point, Michigan Rising Action submitted a FOIA to the secretary of state’s office, seeking to determine why Benson issued what the group considered a relatively light fine to Build a Better Michigan and didn’t fine Whitmer.

Benson’s office denied Michigan Rising Action’s FOIA but was ordered by the Michigan Court of Claims to comply. Benson subsequently responded with heavily redacted documents, claiming the requested information was privileged or represented “frank communications.”

The Michigan Court of Appeals agreed with Tori Sachs, the executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund.

In its determination, the appeals court concurred with the Court of Claims’ conclusion: “The Court of Claims ruled that these documents were not frank communications because they ‘contain no indicia of any communications between public bodies or persons within a public body, let alone frank communications,’ and because ‘there is nothing on these drafts that show who prepared them or why one was different from another.’ We agree.”

In a statement issued Tuesday, Sachs demanded Benson immediately comply with the court’s decision.

“We’ve now won twice in court, unanimously, seeking the documents Jocelyn Benson is hiding that we believe detail her efforts to let Governor Whitmer and her political allies off the hook for breaking the law in the 2018 election,” Sachs said.

“Whitmer coordinated with a nonprofit to illegally spend over $2 million on television ads,” Sachs continued. “When Benson got into office she swept the violation under the rug, gave them a friendly slap on the wrist, and seemingly hoped it would go unnoticed. We are once again demanding Benson release the documents as two courts have already ruled she must do.”

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Bruce Walker is a regional editor at The Center Square. He previously worked as editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s MichiganScience magazine and The Heartland Institute’s InfoTech & Telecom News.
Photo “Jocelyn Benson” by Ghanumal77. CC BY-SA 3.0. Background Photo “Michigan State Capitol” by San906. CC0 1.0.


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