McBroom bill would punish using Greek letters to hide emails from FOIA searches

McBroom bill would punish using Greek letters to hide emails from FOIA searches

LANSING, Mich. — State Sen. Ed McBroom has introduced legislation to protect the public’s access to government communications under the Freedom of Information Act after it was revealed that an email from a lobbyist to a senior advisor to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used Greek letters thus concealing it from an electronic FOIA search.

“My legislation would help ensure FOIA works to help hold government officials accountable by clarifying the intent of the law and the penalties for failing to do so,” said McBroom, R-Waucedah Township. “Whether this incident was the result of a coding glitch or an intentional effort to hide their statements from the public, we should all be able to agree that we need better protections in place to preserve communications in a way that doesn’t avoid honest disclosure.

“I began work on this bill more than four months ago, long before various groups and media started talking about this particular email. My intention has always been to fix an apparent problem so no one in the future is inspired to try to hide information this way while also bringing attention and accountability to this situation if, in fact, it was intentionally done.”

In 2021, a multi-client lobbyist who previously worked for a Genesee County state senator was asked to consult on the state’s response to a Benton Harbor lead water problem given his experience during Flint’s water crisis.

A Sept. 29, 2021, email from him to a Whitmer environment and energy advisor used Greek letters. When translated, it read: “Hot off the presses. As I warned there are some major red flags. It seems like we are back at square one having not learned from Flint.”

The email was uncovered during discovery of a class-action lawsuit by some Benton Harbor residents about the Whitmer administration’s actions to the crisis. A June court filing argued that the use of Greek letters meant the email would have been excluded from any public records request for government communications that contain the word “Flint.”

MIRS, a Lansing-based publication covering state government, reported it was told the Greek letters were the result of a strange coding glitch that can occur when messages are cut and pasted from some Microsoft Word programs into an email.

McBroom’s bill, Senate Bill 467, would increase actions subject to fines and penalties under the state’s FOIA law, by adding a provision forbidding a government body to prepare, knowingly possesses or retain without correction, a public record that, for the purpose of avoiding disclosure of the record, use code words or phrases, symbols, foreign language or non-English letters, or content not readily associated with the true subject or, if created or maintained electronically, is not readily discoverable by an automatic search in English.

This bill is one of many bills McBroom has introduced to increase transparency and accountability in state government, including extending FOIA to the governor’s office and a similar act to the Legislature.


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