Detroit officials deny allegations in public records lawsuit

DETROIT (AP) — The city of Detroit has denied allegations made against it in a lawsuit filed by the Detroit Free Press newspaper, which argues that the city effectively declined access to public records when it asked for more than $200,000 to release the documents.

The Free Press filed a Freedom of Information Act request in August 2019 to obtain documents from a city watchdog’s investigation, which found Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan gave preferential treatment to a prenatal health program led by a woman with close connection to him. The city granted the request, but with the hefty price tag of $222,667 and an estimated three-year wait to prepare the documents.

The Gannett-owned newspaper in April filed its lawsuit against the city in Wayne County Circuit Court, arguing that the substantial fees and the three-year delay violated the state’s public records law and are “clearly intended to chill the public’s right of access to public records.”

“We call that a constructive denial,” Free Press lawyer Herschel Fink said in a statement last Wednesday.

The newspaper sought the records gathered during the Detroit Office of Inspector General’s investigation into Duggan’s selection of the Make Your Date organization as a partner in the city’s fight against infant mortality.

The city responded to the lawsuit last Tuesday, denying several allegations in the newspaper’s lawsuit and said it met all legal requirements in responding to the FOIA request.
The city’s top government lawyer, Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia, called the newspaper’s lawsuit “ridiculous.”

“It reflects contempt for the FOIA statute more than any legitimate grievance with the city’s handling of a request for records,” Garcia said in an email last Wednesday. “The only problem is that the Free Press does not want to follow the FOIA and pay the statutory costs for city attorneys to review 400,000 pages of records and redact any exempted materials (e.g. privileged communications, internal policy, information that would invade privacy and other recognized categories of exemption).”

Garcia added that the city already provided the newspaper witness interview tapes, transcripts and reports from the inspector general’s investigation. The city charged the newspaper $273 for the release of that information.

The newspaper’s lawsuit is asking for a third party to conduct a forensic analysis of the records in question, the city to drop the $222,667 fee for the documents, among other requests.

Meanwhile, Peter Bhatia, editor and vice president of the Free Press, said fighting for openness and freedom of information is central to the newspaper’s mission to deliver important, well-reported journalism.

“Filing a suit is not something we do lightly,” Bhatia said in a statement. “In this case, the ridiculous charges the city wishes to impose and the public interest in fully understanding all that occurred in the IG’s investigation led us to do so.”


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