GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Thousands of Michiganders are still waiting on unemployment payments after the coronavirus shut businesses down earlier this year.
There are many questions surrounding Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency and taxpayers deserve answers. People are still waiting to be paid or they can't seem get in touch with the agency to get help from a live person.
I experienced several roadblocks while filing a records request in hopes of holding the agency accountable and finding out what was said about unemployment before and during the state shutdown.
I filed my request in April under the state's Freedom of Information Act trying to get some answers by requesting emails.
I asked for any and all emails to/from UIA director Steve Gray between March 16th and April 26th.
The department asked for a 10-day extension.
I waited for the 10-day extension to pass and two weeks later I still had no response.
The liaison apologized saying every effort was being made to provide a response during the pandemic and she'd have something for me in a couple days.
I waited another week and still received no emails, so I sent back another note asking what was taking so long. That same day I got the invoice.
It showed Gray had more than 3,600 emails during the dates I requested. The UIA claimed it took 63 hours to pull them. At a cost of $40 an hour for labor and $0.10 a page to print them it would cost FOX 17 nearly $3,000.
I refined the request to lower the cost which the liaison told me would be an entirely new request and a whole new search. They wouldn’t just pick from those emails that they already pulled.
So, I narrowed my request to just 21 days.
I asked for emails sent between Gray and two other top officials within the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. I wanted to see the correspondence between director Gray, LEO Director Jeff Donofrio, and LEO Director of Legislative Affairs Todd Cook.
Dates I requested to inspect their emails to/from each other include: March 8, March 9, March 10, March 11, March 12, March 13, March 14, March 15, March 16, March 17, March 18, March 19, March 20, March 21, and March 22; May 18, 19, 20, and June 23, 24.
I chose those dates to see what was said before Governor Whitmer basically shut the entire state down, what the men said to each other during the first week of the closure regarding unemployment, and what Gray and Cook talked about before the UIA director testified in front of state lawmakers.
The department requested an extension until July 16th.
I was told that search took 25 hours and would cost more than $1,000. I emailed back saying, “I'm fine doing a story about the state wanting $1,000 for public documents.”
The liaison sent me a corrected invoice just a day after I wrote asking about the huge bill.
Instead of 25 hours labor it was only five, and with 650 pages ($0.10 a page to copy) my total only came to $269.20.
After my boss wrote the check, I sent it in the first week of August and waited.
More than a month later I still had not received the documents that we paid for so I emailed again on September 9th.
The liaison responded with, “please accept my apology, you should have the documents on or before close of business this Friday. In the meantime, I will keep you informed of the status.”
Friday came and I was like a kid on Christmas waiting for the package to arrive at the news station. I thought they would mail them since they charged me to copy them.
Once again, the deadline passed and I did not have them so I reached back out on Monday and was told the documents have been pulled and were being reviewed. So, more questions and more delays as I waited for emails that were first "pulled” in July and paid for in August.
I waited yet another 12 days and still no documents.
Finally, in October I get the response from the agency sent to me in an email.
But there were not 650 documents like we paid for. There were nine emails. Nine during the entire 21 days I requested. That leads me to believe that the three men I asked for emails from only emailed each other nine times in 21 days during a government shutdown. Otherwise I'd have the documents from the requested days.
That seems extremely odd to me, so I ask about that and someone from the UIA wrote back and said hundreds of the documents I requested were outside “the scope of my request”. Yet we still paid for them.
Some of the emails were blacked out due to “attorney/client privilege”.
The few remaining emails were on conference calls planned with lawmakers and expanding benefits.
There was also an email from director Gray saying, “Wow. This is really old. How many of these went out? We need to do a communication when this is fixed. I assume tomorrow.”
I have no idea what was sent to him and what he was replying to because it was all blacked out.
“Some of the government agencies frankly use a little gamesmanship with the Freedom of Information Act,” said James Stewart with the Honigman Law Firm in Detroit.
Stewart has filed several lawsuits against the state related to FOIA.
He won a major case for ESPN after it requested documents related to Michigan State University and its police department.
“And that’s the whole point,” he said, “the public is to be informed of the facts. Give them the facts and what they do with them is up to every member of the public. But through FOIA, journalists are able to get the facts and reports those facts to the public – you know, often facts the government agency would just assume not have the public know about.”
The UIA told me its initial count was wrong and instead of 650 documents there were only 429 and we should be getting a refund.
Even out of the 429 documents we were told were out there in the time frame I requested, I only got a total of nine emails and 29 pages. That means there are 400 documents we did not receive.
Last year, Governor Whitmer signed an executive directive to strengthen Michigan's Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act.
At the time she said, “state government must be open, transparent and accountable to taxpayers… This is an important step to infuse integrity in governance and earn back public trust.”
But it’s hard to hold top government officials accountable in Michigan.
Aside from Massachusetts, Michigan is the only other state to completely exempt the governor’s office from public records requests.
Michigan is also one of only eight states where the legislature is also exempt.
Lawmakers are considering a bill to change that and create the “Legislative Open Records Act”. It's currently in a senate committee with another vote possible by the end of the year.
You can request information from pretty much any state agency, but you have to be precise about what you’re looking for. Just do a web search for, "Michigan FOIA + the agency you're looking for records from".
Some agencies have the documents right online if you’d like to fill them out and submit them electronically. Others list the contact information and instructions on requesting your documents.
You can also request documents at the federal level.