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Detroit Journalists Fights for Government Transparency

A David and Goliath Story

By Sarah Williams
Wayne State University Student Journalist

FOIA Case Studies Panelists Chad Livengood (Crains), Kim Kozlowski (Detroit News) and
Mike Wilkinson (Bridge Magazine). Photo credit Sarah Williams.

in their October 2017 bid to lure Amazon’s “HQ2” to the 313, Detroit and the state of Michigan
prepared to give away the farm when it came to public dollars. The week the $4-billion-package
was submitted, Crain’s Detroit Business senior reporter Chad Livengood and his colleagues
made requests through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to find out just what officials
were flashing in order to turn the head of the tech giant, and the “frenetic” manner in which they
scrambled for consideration.

Livengood shared on the experience at FOIA Festival, a citizen and journalist conference held
on Oct. 12 at Wayne State University. Hosted by the Society of Professional Journalists Detroit
Chapter, the half-day event focused on the current state of Freedom of Information (FOIA) laws
in Michigan.
FOIA requests can be made by any citizen to a public body in order to disclose public records.
This insurance of government transparency plays a key role in fostering democracy and
safeguarding against secret government. Michigan is the only state to exempt both its governor
and Legilature’s office from FOIA, giving it an “F” grade on transparency and accountability,
according to the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity.

Three journalists, Chad Livengood (Crains), Kim Kozloski (Detroit News) and Mike Wilkinson
(Bridge Magazine) held a panel on case studies at the conference, explaining how FOIA
requests were used in their investigative reporting. In addition to his coverage on the Flint water
crisis, Livengood talked about the challenges his staff underwent in 2017 and 2018 to uncover
details behind Detroit’s offer for the new Amazon headquarters.

Crain’s began the hunt by submitting FOIA requests to the city, and initially, the Michigan
Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), to obtain any and all correspondence regarding
the bid. Looking mainly for emails, the requests included enterprises owned by Dan Gilbert, as it
had become clear, Livengood said, that the business mogul was behind the scenes, running the
whole thing.

The first request was too wide, monumental, the city said. Crain’s would have to be more
specific. “You’re not always going to get everything you want when you’re looking in these large
fishing expeditions,” Livengood explained. He and his colleague, Kurt Pinho, narrowed the
surface to which the net was cast. Eight officials, from Duggan down, and the bid itself. With the
revised request, the clock started over, and October, all too quickly, leapt to December.

The mayor’s office called. Emails weren’t yet ready, and they’d be expensive. A down payment
of $810 was required. In the meantime, Crain’s could have a copy of the 242-page bid book
Bedrock had constructed and sent five copies of to Amazon. But hang on a minute, the city
needed to ask Bedrock to send it over. Though the mayor had received one of the 10 copies
originally printed, his office didn’t seem to have the final draft.

Again, weird, Livengood said to the audience. The public sector has outsourced a major
economic development proposal to the private sector, and they don’t even have the results in
their possession.
FOIA-ing the bid book led to the first public viewing of the city’s “sales pitch and the Gilbert-
driven downtown vision plan,” in a December Crain’s article. It unveiled a $120 million tech
talent program, a transit vision, and called out the fact that Michigan was still being secretive
about it’s tax incentive offer while it’s partner in the bid, Windsor, has disclosed it’s Canadian
incentive package.

It was nearly Christmas. Detroiters stood in shopping lines, sang holly-jolly choruses, and
Crain’s had just received an 1800-page bundle of emails from the city with a not-so-festive price
tag; $1900 in total.

“It was a pretty big lift, today in journalism,” Livengood said about the bill, “but it was definitely
worth it, because it wasn’t just one story.”

It didn’t look “worth it” at first glance. Frustration set in when Livengood saw all of the tax
incentives that had been offered up were redacted from the documents.

Nevertheless, the following holiday nights were spent categorizing emails, chewing the fat and
spitting out the bones. Plenty of it was nothing. But choice records, coupled with subsequent
interviews, armed Crain’s to publish a 4,000 word investigative article by Livengood and Pinho.
The piece gave readers insight into how powers were being wielded in Detroit, with a behind-
the-scenes look at the unsuccessful “6-week-sprint” the city—Gilbert at the helm— made, to be
considered.

Detroit never gave up the tax incentives. Crain’s wrote about that. Livengood made a FOIA
request to MEDC, who said they couldn’t reveal the incentives without breaking a non-
disclosure agreement with Gilbert, and that as a “trade secret” it was exempt from FOIA. Crain’s
wrote about that also.

The public shaming and pressure Crain’s, along with The Detroit Free Press and others, put on
MEDC, eventually led to a small conference call in mid-May, six-months after reporting on the
bid began. MEDC finally disclosed the incentives to the press.

“I broke it in a tweet, rather than a story,” Livengood said, “because I didn’t want Gallegher (The
Freep) to beat me.”
Though the process of FOIA is long and frustrating, sometimes in these fishing expeditions,
Livengood said, you actually find things that you didn’t ask for. In the $1900 FOIA bundle, there
was an internal mayor’s office document that detailed all the economic developments Mayor
Duggan and MEDC had in the works.

Line item G: “Ford.”

Crain’s broke the Michigan Central train station story six months later.