By Joel Thurtell
What was the big secret about the deal Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan cut with billionaire trucking magnate Matty Moroun to trade pieces of land at the city’s Riverside Park? Why did Duggan staffers lie to two Wayne State University reporters who came looking for the agreement between the mayor and the owner of the Ambassador Bridge? Why not simply show the agreement to the reporters instead of claiming there was no record, only an “idea”?
The answer doesn’t matter. What matters is that the secretive behavior end. I’m hoping that an outside authority — Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy — will instruct the mayor and his staff that they need to serve the public and not themselves.
Here is the letter I sent May 20, 2015 to Worthy asking her to investigate the mayor’s office for possible violations of the Michigan Penal Code, which makes it a crime for public officials to withhold public records when requested by citizens during normal business hours. The punishment for violations is up to a year in prison or up to a $1,000 fine.
May 20, 2015
Dear Ms. Worthy:
I am requesting that you investigate violations of the Michigan Penal Code by staff in Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan’s office on May 12 and May 14, 2015. In violation of the Penal Code provision that public records must be disclosed upon request during normal business hours of a governmental office, staff in Mayor Duggan’s office not only refused to disclose the April 29, 2015 agreement between Mayor Duggan and Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun regarding a proposed swap of land at the city-owned Riverside Park. Mayor’s staff insisted the agreement did not exist as a document at all, but only as “an idea,” even though it was announced publicly April 29 by Mayor Duggan and notarized on May 4.
The requests were made during mayor’s office business hours by Timothy Carroll, former executive editor of the Wayne State University newspaper, The South End, and by Alexander Franzen, current editor-in-chief of The South End. The requests were part of document-gathering during a Wayne State University class, Communications 5310, on investigative reporting. I was the instructor for the five-day class which ran from May11-15. Mr. Carroll and Mr. Franzen were students in the class. Because the subject of the class was the agreement between Mayor Duggan and Matty Moroun involving the land swap at Riverside Park, acquiring a copy of the agreement for analysis and further reporting was critical to the outcome of the class. It was needed early in the week. Had the class relied on Mayor Duggan’s office, we would never have seen the agreement.
Following is a letter addressed to you and written by Mr. Carroll describing the student reporters’ treatment by mayor’s staff:
Dear Ms. Worthy,
This letter is to complain about a denial to view public records from the office of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. I believe that this denial was a violation of the Michigan Penal Code. Chapter 750, 328-1931-LXXI, Section 750.492 of the MPC states that public records must be disclosed during business hours. The code is attached to this letter.
On Tuesday, May 12 and again on Thursday, May 14, my colleague Alex Franzen and I attempted to request public documents from the Mayor’s office related to a land tranfer agreement between the city and the Detroit International Bridge Company. On May 12, we asked to see the agreement. We were told by the Mayor’s executive assistant Kitty Whitfield that it was not a public record until it was submitted to the City Clerk’s office and that the agreement was “like an idea.”
On a second visit to the mayor’s office on May 14, Whitfield called Detroit communications director John Roach and spoke with him about the availability of the document. Roach told Whitfield that all the information the Mayor’s office wanted to share with the public was available online. I then read the MPC to Whitfield in another attempt to view the document but was interrupted by Whitfield, who argued that the agreement was not a public record because it had not been submitted to the City Clerk and therefore, was not available.
However, the agreement was announced in a public press conference on April 29 where details of the agreement were verbally disclosed by Mayor Mike Duggan and others. The written agreement was then notarized by the Detroit International Bridge Company on the same day. Lastly, the deal was approved and signed by the mayor and notarized by Oakland County Notary Public Amanda Elias on May 4, eight days before we requested to see this document.
I believe that this written agreement became a public document when it was verbally announced to the public on April 29. This was reinforced when the written agreement was approved by Mayor Mike Duggan on May 4 and notarized. Furthermore, the disclosure of these records are in the public interest.
The agreement existed as a public record at the time it was requested. The denial of the mayor’s office to disclose the records is a direct violation of the Michigan Penal Code.
End of reporters’ letter.
Following the second request by Mr. Carroll and Mr. Franzen on May 14, officials in the mayor’s office sent the agreement to the city clerk. The following day, May 15, I received a copy of the agreement from someone outside government who in turn received it from a city council member. No effort was made by the mayor’s office to notify the reporters that the agreement was available. Thanks only to luck and good will by a non-official person, students were able to consider the agreement in the last hours of the class.
By law, the WSU reporters had a right to inspect that agreement on Tuesday, May 12, when they first asked for it. Due to deceit by staff in the mayor’s office, the reporters were prevented from considering the agreement in a timely way.
I am attaching this letter to an email along with a second attachment – an audio recording made by Mr. Carroll and Mr. Franzen when they requested the agreement on May 14.
The two WSU reporters were told by Mayor Duggan’s staff that “all the information the mayor’s office wanted to share with the public was available online.” It is important for public officials, including Mayor Duggan, to understand that the law does not permit them to cherry-pick what information they disclose and what information they withhold from the public. Rather, the law requires that public officials, as part of their public duties, disclose all public records impartially, without obstructing citizens who make legitimate requests.
Please investigate the illegal withholding of a public record from citizens who made not one, but two good-faith efforts to request disclosure.