The University of Michigan refused to turn over public documents related to its $25 million research partnership with China unless it receives more than $1,200 in fees, an "extreme" request that experts said prevents transparency.
The Beijing Institute of Collaborative Innovation (BICI) offers robotics and technology researchers millions in funding as well as priority access to the Chinese market. The Washington Free Beacon filed a Freedom of Information Act request for specific documents associated with the lucrative program in January. The taxpayer-funded university, however, demanded $1,204 in fees before releasing the documents.
Modest fees are common in FOIA offices and generally cover expenses related to information gathering and photocopying. But some transparency experts were alarmed by the steep demand, saying that high fee costs can inhibit the public's right to records.
Steve Delie, who has filed multiple FOIA lawsuits against the University of Michigan, said that he has heard of FOIA cases that charged more than $30,000 in fees. He said that the high fees—coupled with long wait times that exceed the statutory deadline—are a serious obstacle to government transparency and discourage Michiganders from acquiring public documents that they have the right to see.
"When these fees are this high, it creates a very chilling effect on public records because your average citizen is unable to gain access to what should be publicly available information," Delie said. "Even institutional entities like the media have difficulty getting prompt responses or justifying the expense for the information being sought."
The Free Beacon requested two specific documents—known within the program as "exploratory project proposal" and "full proposal"—that researchers complete to request BICI funding, according to the program's website. The documents would illuminate key details about the BICI-backed research projects, including whether patent rights will be granted to U.S.- or China-based entities. BICI says it has no ties to the Chinese government but is closely tied to multiple Chinese state-backed universities and enjoys the backing of Chinese Communist Party officials.
Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, said state institutions sometimes resort to expensive FOIA fees to conceal unflattering information or to fill their coffers.
"Unfortunately, charging fees for access to government information has become a way to scare off requesters and a way to conceal records—some of which might point to internal or embarrassing problems," Amey said. "The public has a right to know how our government works and how it is spending taxpayer money, and the government has a burden to respond to such requests, which should not be a revenue-generating mandate."
Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer (D.) pushed for greater FOIA transparency at the beginning of her term, but a Detroit Free Press report found that the Great Lake state continues to struggle with high fees and long wait times. Delie, who has filed two separate FOIA lawsuits against the University of Michigan, echoed the Free Press‘s findings, saying that the situation has gotten worse in the last year. "What I've been seeing over the last year is an uptick in excessive cost estimates and excessive time delays in responses," he said.
Michigan state senator Ed McBroom (R.) said that FOIA reform is necessary to ensure that prohibitively high FOIA costs do not become an obstacle to government transparency. The reform, however, is a balancing act because lower FOIA costs could also lead to an increase in frivolous document requests.
"There's this tension because whoever is requesting the documents is taking taxpayer resources in order to get them. However, if the price is too high, then it becomes a huge vulnerability for corruption," McBroom said. "And so there is public interest in subsidizing these things to some extent."
Eric Doster, a Michigan-based FOIA lawyer, called the university's price tag "extreme" and points to a weakness in American transparency requirements. He said that the FOIA process, even if it is working as intended, has its limits. The state should be required to post documents online to achieve full transparency rather than wait for a formal request for a public good.
"At some point, we need to get away from FOIA laws," Doster said. "And frankly we should put these things online, including the research proposals you're asking for."
The University of Michigan did not respond to a request for comment.