The American Council of Trustees and Alumni is suing the University of Michigan after the public research university did not fully produce documents sought under a public records request filed 11 months ago.
ACTA, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., includes in its mission making sure universities follow donors’ intent when spending gifts. It filed a Freedom of Information request March 3 of last year seeking email messages related to the Lance J. Johnson Children and Law Workshop at the University of Michigan Law School. That workshop was to be held annually and funded by a gift from a University of Michigan Law School alumnus who says the university only held it sporadically, MLive reported.
The university responded to ACTA’s public records request March 11, claiming an extension of 10 business days, according to ACTA’s complaint to the State of Michigan Court of Claims, which was posted online by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based group providing ACTA with legal representation.
On March 30, the university sent an estimate saying it would need 6.25 hours of work over 45 days to complete the public records request. Doing so would cost $259.12, it said. ACTA issued a check paying a required portion of the fees in April but did not receive acknowledgment that the university had received the money until June 18, according to the lawsuit.
Afterward, ACTA sent a series of follow-up inquiries, and the university provided several new estimated deadlines, according to the lawsuit. On Nov. 4 ACTA threatened legal action unless it received records by Nov. 18. The university produced a “partial response” Nov. 18, adding that it would provide a full response by Dec. 9.
The university had yet to provide a full response to the public records request as of Tuesday.
ACTA is asking the court to order the university to supply all documents it seeks, award it with attorney’s fees and other costs, and issue civil fines against the university. It argues the university’s multiple extensions were illegal under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.
“Had the university devoted as little as two (2) minutes of each business day from March 3rd to December 4th, the ACTA would have received the requested records,” said lawsuit documents dated Dec. 18. “The University’s continuing failure to do so constitutes an unreasonable delay, and demonstrates the university is not working diligently to fulfill the Center’s request.”
A university spokesman told MLive that there was a delay in the university receiving ACTA’s deposit and that the university’s FOIA office is nearly finished with a review of additional documents.
“Transparency, accountability, and respect for donor intent should be at the heart of every college or university,” said Michael Poliakoff, president of ACTA, in a statement. “The fact that such a prestigious public institution is obstructing a single donor’s wish to see the financial records connected to his gift is disheartening. I would have preferred not to resort to legal action, but the University of Michigan’s failure to adequately respond to our request has given us no other option.”
The Mackinac Center has recently filed several other lawsuits alleging problems with state departments or universities responding to public records requests. They included one suit against Michigan State University related to a request for emails containing the last name of controversial researcher Stephen Hsu, who stepped down from the role of president of research and innovation this summer, returning to Michigan State as a tenured faculty member following an outcry over different statements and comments he made.