Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s award shows why people distrust government

By Darren A. Nichols
Published 2:28 p.m. ET Oct. 3, 2020

The Duggan administration made national headlines last week, but it wasn’t for anything the Mayor will use in his next “State of the City” address. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and his team were named the most secretive publicly funded agency or person in the country by the Investigative Reporters and Editors journalism association, earning its “Golden Padlock” award. 

The group cited the administration’s handling of public documents having to do with Make Your Date, a maternal health organization that worked with the city to fight infant mortality.  

A Free Press investigation in 2019 showed how the administration directed $358,000 in  city grant to Make Your Date and had staff raise money for the nonprofit, which is led by a woman with ties to Duggan. During the course of its investigation, the Free Press learned that the administration had attempted to hide and delete public documents. 

The group’s chair Robert Cribb said the award to the Duggan administration is a reminder of how far city officials will go to protect themselves. 

The Duggan administration blew it off as a mistake or technical error. What some knew then — and was validated last week with the award — was the administration purposely withheld crucial information from the public. 

That’s shameful for an administration that prides itself on protecting the city’s image, works diligently to show that the politics of the past are gone and chastised reporters for their stories on the city’s web site. 

After the city’s Inspector General investigated and found that the administration ordered staffers to delete emails, Chief of Staff Alexis Wiley, Chief Development Officer Ryan Friedrichs and his deputy, Sirene Abou-Chakra were slapped on the wrist. Wiley was given public records training and the two others were ordered training on document management, the Freedom of Information Act and laws about preserving records. Now they have an award from the nation’s largest investigative journalism association. 

More: City of Detroit wanted $222,000 for public records. So Free Press sued.

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But the Duggan administration is hardly alone. Its situation is simply the latest of local and national officials who have been criticized for failing to release information to the public.  

Just look at some of the headlines from the last week. 

As news of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis unfolded, there was little transparency from the administration. A Saturday morning press conference raised questions about the President’s condition and the timeline of his illness. 

On Sept. 27, the New York Times dropped information about Trump’s taxes, which revealed he paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017. The public had been waiting on the records since Trump was on the campaign trail for his first term in office.

Trump also paid no income taxes in 10 of the previous 15 years — largely because he reported losing much more money than he made, according to the Times. 

Let’s be clear: Duggan is no Trump. But the issues of concealing documents is just as damning. It’s just Trump is a world leader, while Duggan presides over our city.  

By contrast, Joe Biden released his tax records, which showed he paid nearly $300,000 in federal taxes in 2019 hours before the first debate Tuesday. 

Days earlier, The Washington Post outlined the troubles families and others have in compelling police departments to release footage of use-of-force incidents. The Post’s prime example was the body-cam footage of Daniel Prude’s arrest while sitting in the street with a hood placed over his head by police officers in Rochester, N.Y.  

Prude’s family sought police body-camera footage for two months and law enforcement officials still didn’t want the video released. 

That case and others highlight the barriers to obtaining police footage. While viral videos from people are instantaneous, laws in many states help to keep footage from police body or dashboard cams private. 

In not releasing information, police will often tell media and others that it is part of an “ongoing investigation.” I’ve encountered those words too many times to count throughout the years, most notably when trying to get footage of Detroit City Council member Scott Benson’s 2014 drunken driving arrest in Southfield.

The buzz word “transparency” has circled the political scene for years. In Detroit, it was used by those seeking political office following former Kwame Kilpatrick’s ouster and a City Hall corruption scandal. 

It’s what helped former Mayor Dave Bing get elected. The thought was the NBA Hall of Famer wouldn’t steal our money because he’d already made his fortunes.  

But withholding or delaying information to the media or public shows a lack of transparency that leads to the mistrust of local officials.  

It often adds to more speculation about what it is that officials or entities don’t want the public to know. 

What was the real motivation behind helping the Make Your Date initiative? Are the police telling the truth when someone is killed in a traffic stop or while Breonna Taylor was at her home in Louisville? Is Donald Trump a solid businessman or someone who’s manipulated the tax laws for his own benefit? 

Ultimately, it’s us, the public, who has the most to lose. Despite being left with few or delayed answers, it’s the people who are footing the bill with their tax dollars.

But what we really know is it’s never about the people. It’s about winning. It’s about keeping political jobs. It’s about power, even when one lacks experience for the job. Politicians learn to protect themselves before anyone else. Their subordinates often make decisions before it even reaches the public official. 

Americans deserve more. That’s what’s sad about our political system: it’s fairly rare to get concrete answers from our leaders, to get an an open and honest government. 

That’s what keeps the masses in America away from the polls, and disappointed in their government. 

Darren A. Nichols is an award-winning journalist and former Detroit City Hall reporter. 

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