Michigan State fights to shield donor gifts for Tucker’s contract

MSU football coach Mel Tucker on the sideline against Wisconsin. Photo: Nic Antaya / Getty Images

A state judge peppered Michigan State’s lawyer with questions Tuesday about why the university wants to keep donor agreements paying for football coach Mel Tucker’s $ 95 million contract a secret.

  • The hearing in Judge Brock Swartzle’s court is part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by the Detroit Free Press.

Why it matters: Public bodies often reject FOIA requests – or demand exorbitant fees for public records – with impunity, leaving citizens or news organizations little recourse but to sue.

  • The Free Press lawsuit forced MSU to publicly justify its denial of the donor agreements.
  • We’ve been following this suit and other transparency issues in our weekly FOIA feature.

Catch up quick: Tucker’s contract is funded with gifts from Mat Ishbia, a member of the 2000 national championship basketball team and president and chief executive of United Wholesale Mortgage, and Steve St. Andre, chief executive of Shift Digital.

  • MSU says these agreements are exempt from the state’s FOIA laws because they are intertwined with personal, private and confidential financial information.

What they’re saying: Free Press lawyer Herschel Fink argues the public has a right to know whether MSU gave the donors anything in return for their donations.

  • “The head coach (Tucker) has kind of disappointed folks in his initial games. Who has the right to maybe change the coach?” Fink said in court.

The other side: Scott Eldridge, a lawyer representing MSU, said the donors expect the agreements to remain private and making them public would have a chilling effect on future donations to the university.

  • “We’re not learning about anything about how the university operates under those redactions, but we’re going to learn an awful lot about the private financial details and resources of those individuals’ lives.”

The intrigue: Swartzle, who reviewed the records in private before the hearing, asked questions about what information MSU and the donors have already disclosed about the gifts, like this announcement of Ishbia’s $ 32 million commitment last year.

  • The judge wondered whether such pronouncements undermine MSU’s argument.

What we’re watching: It’s possible that Swartzle releases a portion of the records along with his forthcoming decision, which he said he would provide in four to six weeks.

Judge Brock Swartzle hears arguments in the MSU-Free Press FOIA case.
Judge Brock Swartzle, right, hears arguments in the MSU-Free Press FOIA case. Photo: Joe Guillen / Axios

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