Kalamazoo Commissioners Deny FOIA Appeal For Documents In Treasurer Investigation

Mar 19, 2019

Kalamazoo County Treasurer Mary Balkema, second from left, and Dykema Gossett lawyer Ted Seitz, third from left, at the County Commission meeting on Tuesday.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

The Kalamazoo County Board has denied a Freedom of Information Act appeal that could have revealed the names of witnesses in an ongoing investigation of the Treasurer’s office.

Commissioners voted 7-2 on Tuesday (two commissioners were absent) to deny an appeal filed by Ted Seitz of the Dykema Gossett law firm, which represents Treasurer Mary Balkema.

Seitz filed a FOIA request for a wide range of records related to an ongoing Michigan State Police investigation of alleged financial irregularities within Balkema’s office. Kalamazoo County Corporation Counsel Beth White granted that request in part and denied it in part, arguing that internal correspondence between county staff and in some cases commissioners was exempt from FOIA because of attorney-client privilege.

Seitz appealed the denial, arguing that the county effectively waived attorney-client privilege when Commissioner Mike Quinn shared an email between Corporate Counsel White and the County Board with WMUK in September. That email revealed that the county had asked the MSP to investigate the Treasurer.

Kalamazoo County Commissioner Christine Morse disagreed that the Board had waived attorney-client privilege. She noted that Quinn shared the email, not the Commission as a whole.

“We would have to agree to waive the privilege, which we did not do,” she said.

White told the Board that “information having to do with the cooperation of witnesses” could be revealed if Commissioners granted the appeal.

“I’m sure that there people who would want to know the names of anyone that has cooperated in this, the names of witnesses that have come forward, the names of county employees or former county employees, former officials, there are people that would want that information,” she said.

“And that is what I would caution this Board. This is still an open matter with the Michigan State Police,” she added.

Board Chair Julie Rogers said that a resident of her district had reached out with concerns that they wanted forwarded to the MSP.

“I turned that information over to Corporate Counsel, and that person specifically said, ‘I fear my name being released and I hope that it’s not released.’ So in weighing all of that, that’s just one small example but I think there are people that have come forward that don’t want their names released,” she said.

Commissioner Mike Seals said he would have “a real problem with releasing names.”

“That is not an acceptable thing when we are having an MSP investigation. They are witnesses, and they have been tampered with in some respects. There are emails of threats,” Seals said.

“There have been threats directed at specific people within this county body,” he added, though he did not elaborate on their nature or who was allegedly making them.

Board members Ron Kendall, a Republican, and Stephanie Moore, a Democrat, voted against denying the appeal.

The Commission had the option grant the appeal, deny it or partly grant it and partly deny it. Kendall asked White if that meant the Board could keep some sensitive information private and reveal other parts of it. White replied that in her understanding, partial grants tended to separate documents by type rather than content.

“Like, ‘We’re going to give you these types of documents, but we’re not going to give you the police report,’” she said.

“I think Mr. Seitz would be prepared to make the argument that when you waive [attorney-client privilege], you waive it to all the documents that are requested,” she added.

Commissioner Moore said that if threats have been made against county employees, the public has a right to know more about them.

If that information “has not been reported to the Michigan State Police or any other proper authority,” Moore said, “then I’m questioning what in the world is really going on up in here.”