Image courtesy Ingham County
With various members saying “something doesn’t smell right here” and referring to possible political “shenanigans,” last night the Ingham County Board of Commissioners discussed the “Steve Meadows” mystery. Several expressed the hope that the matter—involving a pseudonymous campaign finance accusation against East Lansing City Councilmember Erik Altmann during the elections—will be investigated by State officials charged with overseeing elections.
The Ingham County Board of Commissioners is the governing body for Ingham County, in which most of the City of East Lansing lies. Last night, East Lansing resident Ann Larsen appealed to the Board to reverse a request she made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to get the email address of “Steve Meadows.” FOIA Coordinator Becky Bennett had previously denied Larsen’s request, saying that giving out the “Steve Meadows” email address would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy of “Steve Meadows.”
Asked by Commissioner Randy Schafer why she had taken up this matter, Larsen said she became agitated when she saw the article in the Lansing State Journal on the Friday before the election, headlined “EL Candidates Accused of Campaign Finance Violations,” by reporter Dawn Parker. Larsen said that she found it very suspicious that things had moved so quickly from “Steve Meadows’” complaint at 6:23 p.m on Thursday, to the complaint made only three business hours later by County Clerk Barb Byrum on Friday, to Parker’s article being published at 7 p.m. on Friday. Larsen asked the Board, “How did Dawn Parker even know that there was a filing done [by Byrum] that day?”
Larsen was particularly upset that the glossy attack mailers made by the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce against Altmann were judged “educational” (and therefore legal) by Byrum, but that when Altmann responded with a relatively inexpensive defense letter, Byrum quickly turned a pseudonymous, vague complaint into a specific state-level complaint that also implicated Council candidates Mark Meadows and Steve Ross.
Pointing to Byrum’s endorsement of Council candidates Nathan Triplett and Shanna Draheim, Larsen said she thought Byrum had “a huge conflict of interest” in the matter. Larsen said she thought Byrum “is supposed to be overseeing and protecting our election process.”
Larsen also found it strange that, when Larsen had filed a FOIA request the day after the election to get “Steve Meadows’” complaint, Byrum had alerted “Steve Meadows.” Larsen noted that Byrum had written to “Steve Meadows” telling him she was “terribly sorry” that she had to comply with FOIA and turn over his email complaint. (See FOIA, obtained by ELi, containing this message.)
Bennett, the FOIA coordinator, told the Commissioners that as a practice her office does not disclose email addresses, and so her decision in this case is not exceptional. The Board’s attorney, Peter Cohl, told the Commissioners that they could make a single exception in this case considering that “there’s an allegation of potentially fraudulent activity by an individual” and an “allegation of potentially inappropriate behavior.”
Numerous Commissioners expressed concern about what had transpired in the matter of “Steve Meadows.” Commissioner Deb Nolan said that “having been attacked myself” during an election, “I’d appreciate knowing who those people were.”
The Board Chair, Brian McGrain, said he thought there were “certainly some troubling things” here.
Commissioner Todd Tennis said that he thought it was generally important to apply policies uniformly, but he said he was “persuaded by the testimony of Ms. Larsen that there may be shenanigans going on here, and I would certainly be interested in learning more about this myself and potentially having the Commission through its powers looking more closely into this issue, maybe trying to divine whether there is a real Steve Meadows or not.” He expressed concern about “an attempt to do a ‘gotcha’ right before an election.”
Commissioner Teri Banas said, “This doesn’t feel right. Something doesn’t smell right here.” She said the thought the Board had two jobs here, first “to protect the public’s right to know,” and second “to protect our election system.” She said she “would like to recommend that we investigate this somehow.”
Several commissioners were concerned about making a single exception on the FOIA policy about email addresses. Commissioner Rebecca Bahar-Cook, for example, said it could ultimately lead to “undue harassment” of citizens.
Some expressed concern about the idea that the Commission investigate what happened. Commissioner Randy Maiville said he thought the “matter is best handled by the state elections” authorities.
County Clerk Barb Byrum was not at the meeting so could not be asked questions by the Board. Commissioner Carol Koenig called Byrum’s apology to Meadows, with regard to having to release his email under FOIA, “weird.” She said she didn’t know “why anyone would apologize” for responding to a FOIA.
The Board ultimately voted 9-4 to uphold the FOIA coordinator’s decision to deny the email address, with one board member, Penelope Tsernoglou, not voting because she is married to Steve Ross.
Reached by email this morning, Larsen told me, “To the extent that I do not have that truth, I am absolutely not happy with the outcome of last night's meeting. However, I am grateful for the professionalism and diligence of all the commissioners [and] County Attorney Cohl.” She said she still wants “to know the identity of the fictitious and mighty Steve Meadows that Clerk Byrum cowed to.”
Late last week, I filed a FOIA request asking for “emails and other written communications (including but not limited to text or direct messages) received or sent between Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum and the person who called himself or herself 'Steve Meadows' in the email previously provided to me by your office” (emphasis added). My goal was to try to ascertain whether Byrum knows who “Steve Meadows” is.
The response from Becky Bennett, the County FOIA coordinator, came this Monday. Therein, Bennett claimed I had requested “text and direct messages between Byrum + Steve Meadows.” When I wrote back to say that was not what I had requested, and asked for a correct response involving all correspondence between Byrum and “the person who called himself or herself ‘Steve Meadows’ in the email previously provided to me by your office,” the FOIA coordinator refused. Bennett wrote, “The denial stands as written.”
The video of last night’s meeting can be viewed online. Below the video screen, click on the section that says “VIII. Hearing for the appeal for the freedom of information act denial.”