Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 17, 2013

George Weeks: Mich. leader in dark money politics

Syndicated columnist

---- — Last week, President Barack Obama fessed up that he “fumbled the rollout” of ObamaCare. Michigan’s government lacks such candor about failure to roll out transparency on campaign finance.

In a phone chat last week with chief watchdog of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN), Executive Director Rich Robinson said Michigan has become “the dark money capital of America.” That’s quite an indictment, and was underscored by some recent developments:

— The GOP-ruled Senate voted 20-18 to reject an expansion of campaign disclosure rules that would mandate public disclosure of those who finance political “issue ads” that do not specifically advocate votes for a candidate.

Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson said voters should know who pays for “some of the most negative advertising in political campaigning.”

In a column in Friday’s Detroit News, Johnson said: “Because of a loophole in Michigan law, Michigan voters don’t get to know who is footing the bill for these ads that are carefully crafted to influence voters without the magic ‘vote for’ words.”

While such sponsors are required to include a simple “paid for by” disclaimer that is often an obscure group name, Johnson lamented: “State law does not require them to file any paperwork with the state identifying the real people behind the ad, whether it’s a print or broadcast ad.”

— The dark money funding of Michigan Supreme Court races has been underscored by assorted national and state reviews, including those by the Robinson and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Elizabeth A. Weaver, co-author of recently-published 765-page Judicial Deceit: Tyranny & Unnecessary Secrecy at the Michigan Supreme Court.

The State Bar of Michigan, in a welcome development, asked Johnson to require disclosure of names of donors who sponsor what Robinson describes as “millions of dollars-worth of candidate focused advertisements in state judicial campaigns. In essence, the State Bar had asked that a nine year-old interpretation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act be set aside in view of several seminal U.S. Supreme Court finance decisions, and the effect of the law be returned to its original language: That any communication conveying a clear inference of support or opposition of a candidate is a campaign expenditure and it must be disclosed.”

He noted that the controlling interpretation of the act, made by former Republican-Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (now running for the U.S. Senate), “says that only communications with magic words of express advocacy, such as ‘vote for,’ ‘vote against,’ ‘support,’ ‘defeat,’ and the like, are subject to mandatory disclosure.”

But Johnson said she can’t “move forward under current law, the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, (to grant) a special carve-out in exception for judicial candidates alone…our department cannot impose different disclosure rules based upon the office sought.”

— Gov. Rick Snyder has declined to release names of contributors to his NERD Fund that has been used to help fund some of his support personnel and expenses of Snyder-appointed Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.

He indicated there would be transparency about the new fund that will replace the NERD one. That’s good and it will be good if he uses his veto pen to zap any legislation that makes Michigan’s dark money record even darker.

George Weeks, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, for 22 years was the political columnist for The Detroit News and previously with UPI as Lansing bureau chief and foreign editor in Washington. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.