Updated, 12:07 p.m., 3/24/21
Both chambers of Michigan’s Republican-controlled Legislature have spent a total of $627,808.31 in taxpayer dollars on its lawsuit against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to date, according to the House and Senate business offices.
Neither the Legislature nor the governor’s office are subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Legislature, however, is constitutionally required to release financial records.*
The costs were basically split in half, with the House spending $313,904.15 and the Senate spending $313,904.16 on the Legislature v Whitmer suit. GOP leaders authorized the suit last May in an effort to gut Whitmer’s emergency powers during the early days of COVID-19. Their efforts eventually succeeded with a narrow Michigan Supreme Court ruling in October that the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act (EPGA) of 1945 was unconstitutional.
For that lawsuit, Republicans hired the Troy-based Bush Seyferth & Paige PLLC (BSP Law) to represent them in court. BSP Law has deep, long-held connections to the Republican Party. GOP leaders have yet to detail how the contract was awarded or other details about the agreement.
Requests for comment for this story from Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare) and House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski (D-Scio Twp.) were not returned.
The Senate this month voted to authorize a second lawsuit against Whitmer over COVID-19 relief funding. The new lawsuit would challenge certain line-item vetoes Whitmer made to the Legislature’s COVID-19 relief plan this month. Republicans had tie-barred two appropriations bills to legislation stripping the Whitmer administration of certain pandemic power. That means millions would only be doled out to the state if Whitmer also permanently signed away some of the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) powers.
Whitmer vetoed one such bill, and has until Thursday to act on the other, Senate Bill 1. GOP leaders say that Whitmer broke state law by not honoring those tie bars.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) tried to get spending capped at $10,000 for the new suit, but his amendment failed.
“When it comes to COVID-19, their priorities are out-of-whack and have been the whole time,” Ananich said of Republicans. “Instead of getting much-needed relief out to folks, they’re focused on suing the governor.”
Whitmer spokesperson Chelsea Lewis-Parisio did not directly address the total amount spent by the Legislature on its lawsuit, but criticized GOP lawmakers for “blocking” school funding.
“From the beginning of the pandemic, Governor Whitmer has been working to save lives and provide financial relief to families. At a time when every penny is needed to help us get back to normal and grow our economy, it defies common sense that the legislature would try to block money from going to schools to help children learn in-person safely,” Lewis-Parisio said. “Governor Whitmer will do everything she can to ensure that funding is available to families, small businesses, schools, and communities across the state because we can’t afford to wait.”
Severance agreements and FOIA reform
There have been other recent concerns about how taxpayer dollars are being spent in state government.
GOP lawmakers and the governor’s office also continue to spar over severance agreements, confidentiality clauses and behind-the-scenes taxpayer spending kicked off by the high-profile departure of former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) director Robert Gordon.
When Gordon resigned in late January, he received a $155,000 severance in exchange for “releasing all claims against” the state. Details about his departure were kept quiet for weeks afterwards, as Republicans began to take issue with what they called “hush money” paid out by Whitmer’s administration to exiting employees.
Elizabeth Hertel has said that she will not accept a severance agreement with a confidentiality clause when she eventually leaves the department. Her appointment stands, as the Senate failed to garner enough votes to disapprove her Tuesday, as part of the Senate’s Advice and Consent process,
Since Gordon’s departure, it has been revealed that at least two other state department officials had quietly signed similar separation deals under the administration.
Former Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) head Steve Gray, who resigned in November, received $85,872 for his financial payout; Jeff Mason, the former CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) who resigned last year, received $128,500 in severance.
Combined with Gordon’s payout, those three agreements add up to $369,372 within a year’s time.
Former DHHS deputy director Sarah Esty, who officially resigned in January, also received a four-week paid administrative leave period from late January until late February.
Republicans had blasted the deals for containing confidentiality clauses. Whitmer announced soon after that future separation deals would no longer include the confidentiality language.
But the Legislature has also had its fair share of financial payouts to exiting employees over the years. Earlier this month, it was reported that the Legislature has paid nearly $700,000 worth of separation agreements or legal settlements over the past 10 years.
Although neither chamber has disclosed details of the agreements or individual payments, citing confidentiality reasons, the majority of the payouts have involved 30 separation deals in the Senate since 2010. Three House agreements settling legal disputes with ex-staffers totaled nearly $59,500 since 2013.
Quentin Turner, Michigan Program Director for the Washington, D.C.-based government watchdog group Common Cause, said the issues at hand “brings up important questions about how much information is available to the public in MI government.”
“Good government requires transparency,” Turner said in an email. “Both the Legislature and the Governor have withheld information on spending from the public and it seems to me the Legislature are trying to cast aspersions while doing the similar practices themselves. If they were serious about tackling this issue they would make themselves open to FOIA requests. Beyond that it seems to be they are being intentionally hypocritical to score political points with their base.”
Attempts to improve Michigan’s government transparency laws have been numerous, but ultimately unsuccessful over the years. The newest effort to reform FOIA laws involves a bipartisan, 10-bill package that was passed unanimously by the state House last week.
The Senate Oversight Committee passed the bills out of committee Tuesday that now move to the full Senate.
The liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan has also launched a ballot initiative for 2022 that would reform Michigan’s FOIA laws, arguing that the bills currently up for consideration in the state Senate don’t go far enough to ensure transparency for the Legislature.