March 16, 2010
State denies transparency on H1N1 spending
By Todd A. Heywood
MDCH invokes terrorism to refuse FOIA request
LANSING — The state of Michigan passed out millions of dollars in federal funds to private and public groups during the H1N1 crisis in 2009, but where that money actually went appears to be a closely guarded secret.
A Michigan Messenger investigation has found that the state used much of the $42 million from the federal government to fund activities at various health agencies, hospitals, clinics and pharmacies, but the Michigan Department of Community Health refuses to release the identities of those organizations receiving money — and they base that refusal on Michigan’s anti-terrorism laws.
That denial has experts in government transparency seeing red.
“It is baffling. I read it and I re-read it and I still can’t understand it,” said Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, referring to the department’s denial letter sent last week to Michigan Messenger.
“What garbage,” says Chetly Zarko, director of The Michigan Transparency Project. “There’s a fine line between creativity and garbage. This isn’t even close to the line. Under this analysis – almost everything is a “vulnerable target” and details should be exempt. Universities, schools, “places open to the public” (about everything under the sun there), are covered, and I suppose everything is exempt if this reasoning applies. FOIA – gone. Literally. All of it. Poof.”
Budget documents show that the state of Michigan provided over $1.5 million in gloves, masks and other medical equipment to what MDCH calls its “partners.” But the identity of those partners is a secret, the state argues. The state says to name the organizations that benefited from public monies would identify “vulnerable” facilities in the state, and by doing so violate the state’s anti-terror laws.
In addition, the state refused to identify what a $25,000 payment to the Michigan Civilian Air Patrol was used for, and declined to release documents and information related to an exercise conducted by the state at a cost of nearly $50,000.
It is a felony in Michigan to “obtain or possess a blueprint, an architectural or engineering diagram, security plan, or other similar information of a vulnerable target, with the intent to commit an offense prohibited under this chapter.”
Vulnerable targets are defined under Michigan law to include childcare centers, health care facilities, places of worship, public and private schools, public buildings, universities, stadiums and power facilities.
Zarko says the denial of information makes no sense. He argues that the law was intended to target people who were planning to commit terror acts, not people asking government to provide accountability for where tax payer dollars are being sent.
“Best I can see – they are ‘waving a magic wand’ of ‘there’s this security-terrorism law, and rather than tell you precisely what section or how it logically applies, read sections a) through z) and one of them applies,’” he said in an e-mail to Michigan Messenger. “I don’t think it even applies to FOIA in any way.”
In addition to refusing to release specific documents, the MDCH response to Messenger’s FOIA request was incomplete and does not account for all the money budgeted.
Messenger requested an accounting of how the state spent a $1.5 million budget for a “state wide media campaign.” However, it appears the state only spent $1 million on that campaign. When asked to document where the other $500,000 went, MDCH spokesman James McCurtis declined to answer.
And that’s not the only money unaccounted for thus far. Budget documents reveal that the state authorized $145,000 in payouts for volunteers during the crisis, money to pay for hotels, meals and other costs for those volunteers. When asked to provide an accounting of that spending in the FOIA request, Mary Greco, Legal Affairs Specialist for MDCH, said that no volunteers were used. Asked to explain where that money went, MDCH spokesman McCurtis again declined to answer.
In other words, nearly three-quarters of a million dollars which was allocated for use during the H1N1 crisis is unaccounted for, and the agency that oversaw the use of those funds is not talking about it.
Between the documentation that was missing from the reply and the documentation denied based on spurious terrorism grounds, there are a great many questions raised that the MDCH has no interest in answering.
NFOIC’s Davis says the department is merely using terrorism as a “convenient excuse” to refuse to release information it does not want to release. But as a result, he argues, it leaves the government “without any third party accountability about how that money is spent.”
“It’s bad from a transparency perspective,” says Davis, who also teaches journalism at the University of Missouri. “And it’s beyond devastating from a transparency perspective, it’s bad from a good government system perspective.”
“It’s absolutely perfect for a corrupt person to take advantage of,” Davis said.
Michael Werbowski, Author, Global Research
Michael Mooney, West Hollywood News