The Michigan Department of Corrections has succeeded, at least for the time being, in keeping the state auditor general from fully probing allegations that employees are mistreated.
Audit Operations Director Mike Mayhew says a performance audit, prompted by employee complaints, will indicate that the auditor general was denied access to cases the department considers to still be open. Mayhew says the audit will be issued in approximately two months.
This is the first time a state agency has refused the office access to records on the grounds that the files involve unresolved legal matters, says Mayhew. He says the auditor general has inspected such records in other state departments during the Engler administration and has preserved the confidentiality of material.
The states auditor general is appointed by the Legislature to review the spending and performance of state departments. MDOC, on the other hand, answers to Gov. John Engler.
MDOC spokesman Matt Davis says the department is trying to work out an agreement with the auditor generals office, but has a duty to protect employee privacy.
The audit of grievance and disciplinary procedures began in April 1998 at the request of then-state Rep. John Freeman, D-Madison Heights. Freeman says corrections employees had complained to him of mistreatment at MDOC, including racial and sexual harassment.
Roughly a dozen current and former corrections employees, including a former administrator, told Metro Times that the department punishes whistleblowers for small infractions of work codes while rewarding, and sometimes promoting, corrupt employees. Some accuse the department of racial and sexual harassment, and some say they have been forced to sue the department because its internal system for handling employee grievances is ineffective.
Freeman was term-limited out of the Legislature last year and is now working for Washington, D.C.-based Center for Policy Alternatives, a progressive think tank.
"Ultimately, the governor is violating the state constitution, and for that he ought to be impeached," Freeman says. "The real question we have to ask is why is the department doing this?" His deduction: "They must be hiding something."
Meanwhile, the auditor generals office is weighing its options. Mayhew says the auditor general could attempt to have the records subpoenaed or seek a formal opinion from the attorney general. Either way, the matter could end up in court.
An attorney generals office spokesperson says the office is providing counsel to both MDOC and the auditor generals office, but declined to comment because the audit is an internal matter for the state.
Mayhew says that in the past the attorney generals office always has backed the auditor generals access to state records, and doing otherwise would establish a bad precedent.
"Any state agency could conceal information by dropping it into a file labeled attorney-client privilege," he says.
This isnt the first time MDOC has come under fire for secrecy. Last year, the U.S. Justice Department sued the department to gain full access to its womens prisons to investigate widespread allegations of sexual assault on prisoners; the two sides have a settlement pending. Engler has also denied a United Nations investigator access to the womens prisons.