Have you been paying attention to the ongoing fiasco in the Village of Oakley, Michigan? The Village of Oakley, with a population of fewer than 300 residents, has approximately 150 reserve police officers. These reserve officers are not certified by the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES) and do not receive the same training as regular law enforcement officers in Michigan. Nonetheless, they receive a uniform, badge, handgun, bulletproof vest, and other trappings of office in exchange for paying into to the village’s police fund. It is, in essence, a pay-to-play scheme by which Oakley Police Chief Rob Reznick sells these reserve-officer positions to influential individuals who want the prestige and privileges (which include the ability to carry a handgun in a pistol-free zone) of being a “police officer.” The list of Oakley’s reserve officers includes a professional football player, several prominent attorneys and doctors, and numerous Detroit-area businessmen.
When a local tavern owner in Oakley sought to discover the names of the reserve officers, the village adamantly opposed her request. So she filed an action under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) seeking disclosure of the names.
Now here’s the best part of the story: Herschel Fink, known as a pro-disclosure First Amendment attorney for the Detroit Free Press, argued that the reserve officers' names were exempt from disclosure under FOIA. Among other things, Fink contended that disclosure of the names would place the reserve officers at greater risk of harm from terrorist attacks. Why had Fink taken a position that was so contrary to his typical pro-disclosure views? It turns out that Fink, himself, had paid to become one of Oakley’s reserve officers.
Last fall, in an unrelated case, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that the names of police officers are generally not exempt from disclosure under FOIA. Then, in January, the Court of Appeals specifically ruled that the Village of Oakley was required to disclose the names of the individuals who had paid into its police fund. The Village of Oakley has now changed positions, deciding to release the names of its reserve officers after all (http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2015/03/03/oakley-police-department-reserve-officers/24287643/).
It is a wonderful example of how minimal personal gain can corrupt an individual and make him abandon his own long-held beliefs. As an attorney, Herschel Fink had an obligation to follow the law. As an advocate of government disclosure, he certainly knew better. Yet he set aside his values in an effort to preserve his own small piece of the pie. It’s sad that this thirst for power—as insignificant as that power might have been—was enough to transform a once-respected First Amendment lawyer into a self-serving opportunist.