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​​​​​​​Court Orders Release Of MSU Gift Agreements With Ishbia, St. Andre

David Krechevsky
Dec 14, 2022
Ishbia

Detroit Free Press wins FOI lawsuit over donations to athletic programs.

United Wholesale Mortgage CEO Mat Ishbia’s love for his alma mater, Michigan State University, is no secret. 

Now, thanks to a Michigan judge’s ruling, Ishbia’s gift agreement with MSU will no longer be secret either.

Judge Brock Swartzle of the Michigan Court of Claims has ordered the university to provide the Detroit Free Press with copies of the agreements between MSU and two of its largest donors, including Ishbia. The ruling was reported by the Free Press on Tuesday.

MSU has 10 days to comply with the ruling.

According to the Free Press, MSU spokesman Daniel Olson said Tuesday that the university is reviewing the court's ruling "to determine appropriate next steps and comply."

The decision followed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by the Free Press in June, asking a judge to order the school to release the gift agreements it has with Ishbia and another wealthy grad, Steve St. Andre, founder of Shift Digital. 

In November 2021, the school signed a new 10-year, $95 million contract with head football coach Mel Tucker, making him the highest-paid coach in the Big Ten Conference and one of the highest-paid in the country. Both Ishbia, who was a member of the Spartans' men's basketball team when it won a national championship in 2000, and St. Andrew were credited with helping to fund the massive contract. 

In the lawsuit, the Free Press accused MSU of violating state open records laws by denying its initial request for copies of the agreements with the two donors. 

MSU President Samuel Stanley subsequently denied an appeal from the newspaper, stating at the time that, "It is the university's position that the individuals' privacy interests outweigh the Free Press' stated interest in disclosure.”

In his order, Swartzle disagreed.

"MSU has not pointed this court to a single authority applying Michigan law that supports its contention that the amounts of the gifts, the payment schedules, or the donors' expressed desires for how the university should use the funds constitute private or confidential information," he wrote in his opinion, filed Monday. "Both Ishbia and St. Andre made non-anonymous donations to MSU (a public entity), and their subjective belief that the amount of those gifts would remain confidential does not establish that the agreements contain private or confidential information.”

He continued, "The court concludes that the amount that a private individual contributes to a public university in a non-anonymous capacity does not reveal intimate, embarrassing, private, or confidential information about that individual. Nor does the revelation of how the donor desires that the university spend the money. MSU cannot avoid FOIA by promising greater confidentiality than it can lawfully provide as a public institution."

Swartzle agreed with MSU that making the agreements public could have a chilling effect on future gifts, but noted that there is no current FOIA exemption for donor agreements under state law.

Free Press lawyer Herschel Fink said the judge made the right decision.

"MSU's refusal to release the records was baseless, as the court found," he told the Free Press. "It was a totally frivolous argument, as the court found. There was nothing private to (the agreements)."

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