Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette was sued Tuesday after his office rejected a public-records request for his and 20 staffers' private emails that a liberal advocacy group said were used to conduct government business over a six-year period.
Progress Michigan filed its lawsuit in the Court of Claims, nearly six months after the department largely denied the request by saying it did not possess the records. State employees who use personal email accounts to perform official functions are clearly creating public records subject to Michigan's Freedom of Information Act, according to the suit.
When Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, whose office is exempt from Michigan's open-records law, voluntarily released thousands of pages of emails related to the Flint water crisis last year, some emails showed Snyder and his staff using their personal accounts.
Progress Michigan said it learned through previous FOIA requests that the Republican attorney general and at least 12 other current or former employees had used their personal email accounts for official work. The suit cites a series of emails between May 2014 and May 2015 in which senior staff meetings, news conferences and media interviews were scheduled.
"For the attorney general to come back and say they don't exist and we don't possess them is simply not true," said Mark Brewer, the group's attorney. "We attached examples to the complaint of the fact that they do exist. So the question before the court is, 'Is the attorney general lying about whether they exist or not or were they improperly destroyed or what happened to these emails?'"
Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said the suit was being reviewed. She declined to comment further on pending litigation.
The use of private email for government business has become more prominent nationally. Republicans frequently criticized Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server as secretary of state. Vice President Mike Pence more recently has come under scrutiny for using an AOL account to conduct state business when he was Indiana's governor.
Brewer said he was unaware of any Michigan court ruling specifically on the issue of government officials' having to disclose private emails that discuss official business.
"What's critical under the Freedom of Information Act is, 'Have you created a public record?'" he said. "The medium in which it's created is irrelevant."