Whitmer Administration Used ‘Calculated’ Scheme To Hide Sensitive Email From the Public, Lawsuit Says

Michigan governor pledged to bring transparency to Great Lakes State

Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (Getty Images)
August 29, 2023

A consultant for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D., Mich.) used a coded message in a "calculated" effort to "conceal" from the public record sensitive communications regarding the administration's response to a local water crisis in Michigan, according to a lawsuit.

Michigan energy department consultant Andy Leavitt in September 2021 emailed a top adviser to Whitmer to express "some major red flags" with the administration's response to a lead water crisis in southwestern Michigan, which Leavitt compared to a similar crisis in Flint, Michigan. But Leavitt's initial message was not written in English—the consultant used letters in the Greek alphabet in place of English ones, a move that "appears to be calculated to conceal the statements," a June court filing in a class action suit against Whitmer's government argues. Leavitt's use of Greek letters means his email would have been excluded from any public records request for government communications that contain the word "Flint."

The apparent scheme to hide sensitive conversations from public records requests comes years after Whitmer promised to bring transparency to the Great Lakes State as governor. In Michigan, the governor's office is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, a policy that Whitmer promised to reverse during her 2018 campaign. "Michiganders should know when and what their governor is working on," the Democrat said at the time.

But Whitmer has not reversed the policy. Her office is still exempt from public records requests years after she promised to issue an executive order that would subject her office to such requests. The Democrat during her first term also defended severance payments and confidentiality agreements with former employees, which Republicans characterized as "hush money."

Neither Whitmer nor Leavitt returned requests for comment.

Leavitt's 2021 coded message discusses the lead water crisis in Benton Harbor, a small town in southwestern Michigan. The town's water system for years exceeded federal standards for lead contamination, prompting a group of residents in November 2021 to sue Whitmer over her government's "deliberate indifference" to addressing the crisis.

One month before the residents filed their suit, Leavitt—a partner at a Michigan strategic consulting firm who was advising Whitmer's energy department—emailed Whitmer senior adviser Kara Cook to express his concern over the administration's "not acceptable" warnings to Benton Harbor residents. Leavitt's top-line assessment of the warnings, however, was written using the Greek alphabet. Changing Leavitt's font to standard English reveals the following message: "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."

While the lawsuit eventually led to the discovery of Leavitt's message, the email likely would have remained hidden from the public if Whitmer's administration had not faced legal action. That's because Michigan's public records department is unable to electronically search for records that use Greek letters, government correspondence obtained by the Washington Free Beacon shows. As a result, even if a concerned citizen or political group caught wind of the tactic and requested energy department communications that use certain Greek letters, Michigan's government would have been unable to provide them without searching for the letters manually, an extremely expensive process that can take years.

A veteran public records researcher told the Free Beacon he had never seen government officials use foreign alphabets to convey sensitive messages.

"I haven't seen it before, but it doesn't surprise me," the researcher said. "Agencies play games to fight requests all the time. If they're doing it here, where else are they doing it?"

Whitmer secured reelection in November, and the Democrat's second term comes as her party controls both chambers of the state legislature for the first time in nearly four decades. Still, it's unclear if Whitmer and her legislative allies will pass ethics reform laws to make Michigan more transparent. Only Republicans have introduced such legislation as of May, and Whitmer refused to give Axios a direct answer when asked if she would subject her office to public records requests via executive order.