Keep NDAs out of government

A recent document dive by Bridge Michigan showed Michigan’s Office of the Attorney General required Dana Nessel’s personal state security detail to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Its subsequent revocation came as part of a union dispute about changing the terms of the contract — not as a matter of principled public interest — but it illuminates a shadowy trend in patronizing the public, if not dismissing it outright.

NDAs are legally binding contracts to establish confidential relationships, full stop.

These, especially in government security details with private contractors, seem to be “used more prevalently now,” former Detroit Police Chief Ralph Goodbee told Bridge. Security contracts are paid by tax dollars: Nessel’s potentially to the tune of $28,560 per week.

This money pales in comparison to other situations where NDA use in public funds has popped up — government subsidies for corporate development.

In January, the Detroit Free Press reported that 13 Michigan lawmakers and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed NDAs with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to keep mum on four manufacturing deals tied to $1 billion in state subsidies.

When lawmakers voted through the subsidies, they ostensibly had no idea which companies they were supporting.

Whitmer also used NDAs as a reason not to discuss the abrupt departure of two of her appointed department heads, who received $241,000 in combined severance. Her reasoning was that private companies use NDAs all the time.

But would these private companies survive if the leadership, shareholders, bankrollers and investors made decisions based on no information? Where no one had even a basic profit-and-loss statement to show money spent against earnings?

That’s what’s happening in our government, paid for by the people who choose its leaders. We also are its shareholders, bankrollers and investors.

NDAs have no place in public business. They diametrically oppose our foundation of checks and balances, maintained by an informed voting public. Our country is built on the people’s right to know. You the taxpayer might want to weigh in before a certain company comes to your neighborhood.

You might want to know about potential misconduct at the top levels of government before voting. You may even want to have enough information to debunk outlandish claims made by one side or the other.

That’s why, come election time, “transparency” is a bipartisan buzzword that all candidates claim to want in government. But a Michigan bill that would ban units of government, public officials or those acting on their behalf, from signing NDAs lingers in inaction, after its introduction in March.

As we know from recent Amazon cutbacks and delays in its Michigan plans, giveaways come at a greater cost than sunny NDA-protected promises would show.

Those who are threatened in office, like Nessel, should of course be protected ­– but not in secrecy. Public sector hirings and firings, contracts, misconduct and severance is imperative to accountability.

NDAs are falling into disfavor in private industry, too, as standing on the wrong side of history — protecting bad actors from possible criminal and civil liabilities at the expense of free speech.

Of course, those using NDAs might be great people and businesses, focused squarely on the public interest. They may have nothing to hide, and may not be playing manipulative PR games with public money.

But we, the public, are not allowed to know.


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