Opinion: Michigan's taxpayers have the right to transparency

This column originally appeared in The Detroit News.

She's spending your money to fund a cover-up — or two.  

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was rocked this month by the revelation she's spent hundreds of thousands of tax dollars on hush-money deals with high-ranking public officials whose jobs had them at the center of her administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whitmer last week doubled down, issuing an executive directive making hush-money secrecy pacts not an opaque outlier, but the administration’s formal practice.

Government watchdogs today are in the middle of what's known as Sunshine Week. It's an annual fight for reform where groups like the Michigan Freedom Fund highlight all of the ways state and local governments try to hide things from taxpayers and battle to defend the public's right to know.

For years, we've called for the state to expand the Freedom of Information Act to make the government more transparent to taxpayers. Whitmer's astounding attack on the public's right to know proves now's the time to go even further.

First, she fired Steve Gray, her point person at the state's scandal-plagued unemployment insurance agency, paying him more than $85,000 to sign a legal document that prohibited him from ever disclosing why he was fired — or what he experienced in the governor's orbit.

Then, Whitmer fired Robert Gordon, the man at the top of her Department of Health and Human Services — the department tasked with crafting the governor's policies combatting COVID-19.

The health director offered Whitmer expert COVID guidance she didn't like, she issued health orders that contradicted the recommendations of her health department, fired Gordon, then gave him a $155,000 "severance." 

The hush money came with a catch. Gordon wasn't allowed to ever discuss his disagreements with the governor or details about any other time Whitmer may have acted against medical professionals' advice.  

We may never know if Whitmer was violating the State Supreme Court's decision by directing her department versus it acting independently. Michigan remains in the dark. 

Outrage over these moves isn't confined to everyday taxpayers or Republican partisans.  

"It's concerning, to say the least," said Democratic state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky. "I am not in the business of sugarcoating things or defending things I don't find defensible."  

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist is suing Whitmer for refusing to turn over public COVID data related to her importation of the virus into nursing homes. 

Elected Democrats are blistering her State Police Department after it was caught using apps on high ranking individuals' mobile devices designed to intentionally destroy public records.  

"With everything that is going on negatively with policing for you all to do that in leadership, it ruins some of your credibility," said Democrat state Rep. Tyrone Carter.  

It raises — and answers — some serious questions about Whitmer's character. 

We're barely halfway through her four-year term, and Gretchen Whitmer has already established a reputation as perhaps the least transparent governor in Michigan's history.  

It's time for the state Legislature to lead and to lead boldly.

Before March is out, the House and Senate should pass and send to the governor's desk at least four key transparency reforms.

They should pass legislation expanding FOIA to the offices of the governor and lieutenant governor.

They should pass legislation expanding FOIA to every member and office in the state Legislature.

They should immediately outlaw non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements for public and taxpayer-funded officials, elected officials and staff. State Sen. Tom Barrett is already working on legislation to tackle hush money deals. His bill is an important start.

They should meaningfully reform FOIA to simplify and speed up the process while dramatically limiting what government charges the public who seek information about what their government is doing.

The Legislature should send the governor these fixes, and force her to sign them or explain why Michigan Democrats are the party that stands in the way of transparency, accountability and responsible government.

Transparency must be a priority of the government. There's a lot the governor doesn't want you to know. Yet your right to know is not subject to Whitmer's whims. 

Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.

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