by Amy Kerr Hardin
Today’s Traverse City Record-Eagle opined on a transparency issue at Northwestern Michigan College over exorbitant legal fees paid to the silk-stocking law firm Miller Canfield. At $500 an hour, the community college was charged a whopping $46,000+ by the downstate firm to guide school administrators through a number of policy, personnel and unionization issues.
Miller Canfield billed $19,000 for advice leading to a controversial e-mail sent to faculty members warning them of the possible pitfalls of allowing “third-party” collective bargaining control over their compensation. The letter had little effect — NMC employees overwhelmingly voted in favor of unionization.
The Record-Eagle is demanding full disclosure on the purpose of the remaining $27,000 paid to Miller Canfield. The law firm’s response to the paper’s Freedom of Information Act request turned-up a “heavily redacted” document that spoke little of where and how taxpayer dollars were spent. Miller Canfield attorneys invoked attorney-client privilege as reason for their heavy-handed use of the Sharpie. The Record-Eagle correctly points out that only the client may make that claim — and in the case of a public body, those rights are limited.
There’s another question to be asked here — what does Miller Canfield do with all that pretty-pretty money?
Well, a good portion of it goes to grease Michigan’s political skids, as reported by Follow the Money, they’ve showered candidates and PACs with their largess.
Make no mistake, Miller Canfield is an equal opportunity schmoozer — having spread their political influence generously on both sides of the aisle over the years.
While they certainly do seem to be covering all their bases, there is one item that should be a red flag for anyone who truly cares about education in Michigan. Miller Canfield has given $10,000 to the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP) PAC , an organization devoted to the unfettered expansion of charter schools in Michigan.
Chad Phillips, of the Michigan Populist Blog, did some research on the organization, reporting that GLEP was launched in 2001 with funds from Dick and Betsy DeVos. Over the years, the extended family has given more than $1 million cumulatively to the effort. Other funders include Daniel Gordon of Gordon Foods, Hendrick Meijer of Meijer Inc., and Jim and John Walton of Wal-Mart. In 2006, Rick Snyder wrote them a check for $2,000.
GLEP’s primary goal at the outset was to lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed by law in Michigan — an effort that was thwarted under the Granholm administration, but met with success under Gov. Snyder. Phillips writes that they proceeded to focus their considerable efforts on the goal “to recruit, train and fund candidates for elected office in Michigan.”
While it is still perfectly legal for Miller Canfield to indulge in such rich political spending, it remains questionable whether NMC administrators should engage the services of such a politically active law firm. This just adds to the appearance of impropriety.