Opinion: Whitmer is silent on state police's encrypted text message scandal

This column originally appeared in The Detroit News.

“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both.” – James Madison, 1822.

One wonders what the father of our Constitution would have said reading Michigan newspaper reports about new evidence that high-ranking state employees were caught using technology that doesn’t merely withhold public records but is designed specifically to destroy them.

They’re the kind of revelations that should worry every Michigan resident and produce broad and meaningful reform from lawmakers and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The Legislature seems to be taking it seriously, for their part, but the response from the Whitmer administration has been nearly as chilling as the scandal itself.

Just weeks ago, a trial lawyer and a newspaper reporter ripped the cover off the expanding scandal. High-ranking Michigan State Police officials, they discovered, were allegedly using a smartphone app that automatically and permanently deletes communications from their state-issued devices.

Records seemed to be missing in a high-profile lawsuit against Whitmer and the MSP over hiring and promotion practices within the force. The attorney asked if police were deleting records. He pushed, and the media, catching wind of the accusation, did too. 

Finally, MSP admitted more than a dozen individuals in the department were using technology that hides and deletes messages and communications — public records. 

Law enforcement leaders using technology that hides and destroys records should trouble us and set us asking a great many new questions.

The governor’s team was asked if any other state employees are using apps to hide and destroy public records. Whitmer’s office has refused to answer the question.

The indirect response they’ve offered tells transparency advocates all they need to know. Executive employees would be allowed to use the technology if “the application is for legitimate state business,” claimed a spokesman from the Department of Technology, Management and Budget. 

He refused to answer the obvious follow-up question — what state business, in particular, could require state employees to hide and destroy public records?

For federal employees, such offenses are a crime.

How many other Whitmer administration officials have the app or have used it to destroy records? 

How many department directors? 

How many senior staff? 

How many other elected officials?

Will the administration provide an accounting and direct employees to immediately discontinue use of the app as a matter of state policy?

The governor’s not telling. That probably shouldn’t surprise us, either.

Michigan is the only state in the nation where the governor, lieutenant governor and Legislature are exempt from Freedom of Information laws. 

After winning her election, Whitmer pledged in her widely-hailed “Michigan Sunshine Plan” that even “…if the Legislature won’t act, I will use the governor’s authority under the Michigan State Constitution to extend FOIA to the lieutenant governor and governor’s offices. Michiganders should know when and what their governor is working on.”

She hasn’t, of course, and says she won’t. Headline made, promise broken.

The Legislature hasn’t done anything to meaningfully address government transparency either, and they should. They should send the governor bills this month. 

Whitmer’s broken campaign promises and her unseriousness about FOIA reform amount thus far to little more than a farcical bit of performance theater. 

Voters are now aware. An undetermined number of Whitmer team members, including many of those with the ability to impact residents’ daily rights and freedoms, have deployed technology that both hides records from the public and destroys them before anyone even learns they exist. 

We’re past the time for rhetoric. Integrity demands action. 

Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.

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