What's In A Word? Well, A Lot In L'Affaire Engler/Nessel
The easiest line in Shakespeare to remember is not "to be or not to be" but "words, words, words," the reply Hamlet makes to Polonius when asked what the Danish prince is reading.
So much of the argument over former Governor, and former Interim Michigan State University President, John Engler's interview or non-interview with lawyers for Attorney General Dana Nessel is over words, words and words.
Ignore for the moment the larger issues at play in the attorney general's investigation into how MSU handled the sex abuse scandal of Larry Nassar. This skirmish is between lawyers. And a lawyer's weapons are words, how and under what circumstances those words are employed, deployed and in some measure destroyed.
The headlines and commentary over the flap are focused on accusations Mr. Engler wants to lie or that the AG's lawyers have behaved unprofessionally. But the real fight lies in the words traded before the roundhouse rights. They are all polite, sometimes friendly, but also all calculated to land punches and duck others.
Ms. Nessel wants her investigators to interview Mr. Engler. Following discussions/negotiations it was agreed for an interview on Thursday, March 28, in Washington, D.C. Mr. Engler, though he has a home in Michigan, spends much of his time in Washington where he worked heading several associations after leaving office in 2003.
The email trail between Ms. Nessel's project manager for the investigation, Christina Grossi and Mr. Engler's lawyer, Seth Waxman, is a fascinating – for those who are fascinated by such things – lesson in how lawyers write and phrase their writings.
Take the heading on the letter emailed by Mr. Waxman to Ms. Grossi – the one where he said Mr. Engler would not participate in an interview unless Ms. Grossi was recused from the entire investigation because he accused her of inappropriate behavior – saying, "Re: Michigan State University Investigation – John Engler Voluntary Interview."
"Voluntary" interview. Not required, not subpoenaed, voluntary. It is a significant word because it sets the tone, as far as Mr. Waxman is concerned, as to interviewing Mr. Engler at all.
As has been pointed out, primarily by Mr. Engler's supporters, Mr. Engler was hired as the MSU interim president after Nassar was sentenced. He was not at MSU when Nassar committed his abuse. Unless, therefore, he is compelled to be interviewed, his lawyer is making the point Mr. Engler doesn't have to show up.
Reviewing how the pieces have moved on this board, Ms. Grossi agreed. While she persistently raised concerns about holding the interview outside Michigan, at one point she wrote, "I recognize that he is sitting for this interview voluntarily."
Then, in a furious email written at 6:21 a.m. on Tuesday – and, no kidding, nobody should ever write anything serious and determinative at 6:21 in the morning – when she apparently saw Mr. Engler was in Michigan to go to an MSU basketball game, Ms. Grossi wrote that if Mr. Engler "is not going to voluntarily participate…we will explore all legal resources available to secure his interview in Michigan involuntarily."
Which Mr. Waxman immediately parried in his letter, again in the heading and repeatedly in the body where Mr. Engler has "at all times been willing" to meet, never "communicated any unwillingness to do so," and again using the word "voluntarily" throughout.
Which leads us to another set of curious words in this whole affair: Ms. Nessel's statement. She defends Ms. Grossi, as she should because Ms. Grossi is part of her team, and says there's no reason for her to be recused because, pay attention here, "there is no current case nor is she investigating John Engler." Which means….hmm? There is no "current" case, and Ms. Grossi is not "investigating John Engler." Is Ms. Nessel giving Mr. Engler a pass on anything when there is a "current" case?
Finally, Ms. Nessel reminds everyone that Ms. Grossi wasn't actually doing the interview, the chief investigator was, and she holds that out to Mr. Waxman saying Ms. Grossi oversees the investigation, "including but not limited to arranging for our lead investigator to meet with" Mr. Engler.
However this gets resolved, it will be resolved in writing. Watch the words used and ignore the fireworks set off.
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Another Tech Project Ends In Disaster For State
Five years into a vital new information technology program for the child welfare system, here's what an independent analyst had to say about the quality of the Michigan Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System since it went online five years ago:
"Persistent and significant defects stemming from a flawed MiSACWIS design and initial roll-out in 2014 continue to generate an unmanageable backlog of defects, incidents, and data fixes that are likely to persist indefinitely, inhibit effective casework, contribute to data entry errors, negatively affect outcomes for children and families and impact (the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services') ability to collect and report accurate and timely … data for both the monitors and field staff."
Is that bad?
Did I mention the state has spent $231 million so far on this lemon?
Two. Hundred. Thirty-one. Million. Dollars.
There are so many outrages here, it's hard to know where to begin.
There's the sum of money frittered away, which so startled me that when I was speaking to DHHS spokesperson Bob Wheaton on the phone about the report and asked him what the state had spent so far on MiSACWIS and he told me, I hollered into the phone, "$231 million?!" Sorry about that, Bob.
There's the real-world consequences for children and families already facing significant challenges and problems. The technology was ordered up by the federal court overseeing the state's child welfare programs for the last decade because the system's problems were so severe they prompted a lawsuit in 2006 and a settlement in 2009 whose consent decree remains in effect.
There's the apparently false information state officials provided about MiSACWIS after its disastrous rollout in 2014. Yes, that's right, this thing was on the fritz from the moment it came online, and that was extensively reported. Many foster care agencies went extended periods without getting paid. But then in the succeeding years, officials kept telling legislators the system was improving. In fact, the report released last week showed the number of complaints from the system's users only kept increasing every year.
And then there's the triumvirate of state technology debacles in the past decade.
Besides MiSACWIS, there's the infamous fiasco in the unemployment fraud system, where 37,000 people were wrongly found to have committed fraud to get unemployment benefits by the Michigan Integrated Data Automated System, or MIDAS. There was definitely a human component to what happened because it was humans who decided to turn over the fraud adjudication process to a computer for two years between 2013-15 and some would contend the computer system functioned as it was designed, but still.
And let's not forget the Department of State's failed Business Application Modernization (BAM) project to update its systems for how motorists and others purchase and renew licenses, among many other functions. Started in 2008, it foundered so badly that years later the state fired the developer, sued it and started over with a new contractor that just completed much of the work and so far (knock on wood) it seems to be working.
Besides all three projects involving lame acronyms, all three had some common elements. All involved private contractors hired to develop the software and all three could end up costing the state a fortune, either in what it has paid out in development costs or in the case of the unemployment debacle, what it might take to settle lawsuits. The critics of the Department of Technology, Management and Budget also are out in force after the MiSACWIS revelations. The department is involved in working on all these projects, even when private contractors are heavily involved too. And then there's all three of these happening at a time when a former computer company CEO, Rick Snyder, was governor. Mr. Snyder elevated IT in his budgets in a huge way to update ancient systems that had been ignored for decades, but the results in some cases were awful, though it's not like the governor was personally involved in coding and data entry.
It's going to take some time to figure out exactly what went wrong with MiSACWIS. Was it the technology? Was it a case of bad data, not the technology itself? Both?
Will there be an investigation into what went wrong with MiSACWIS? There's never really been an explanation from the Unemployment Insurance Agency about what precisely led to the MIDAS disaster because of the ongoing lawsuits.
The state deserves some answers. Let's even make an acronym out of it.
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