Stealth campaigns standard procedure
A significant factor in Michigan’s 2015 ranking is its lack of effective disclosure rules for officials in nearly all facets of state government. Conflicts of interest and potential public corruption remain buried in an honor system with no honor.
Thanks to loopholes created by the legislature, big spenders representing special interests can dramatically influence an election without leaving a trace.
Campaigns increasingly rely upon shadow groups that independently pay for so-called issue ads. Those ads praise or demonize a candidate in a manner that’s virtually indistinguishable from a traditional TV spot. But the commercials avoid the magic words — “vote for” or “vote against” — that would require disclosure of the money behind the sales pitch.
The 2013 doubling of Michigan contribution limits set the maximum gift to a gubernatorial candidate at $6,800 for an individual, $68,000 for political action committees and $136,000 for state party central committees. But that’s just a starting point in this multi-layered political parlor game. Unregulated funding for those dominant issues ads derives largely from PACs, super PACs and political party groups that can accept unlimited amounts of campaign cash from across the nation.
At the same time, the office of the secretary of state, Michigan’s top election official, operates as a record-keeping agency, not an enforcement unit. It enjoys no subpoena powers and generally does not initiate investigations.
Former Michigan Democratic Party chairman Mark Brewer recently concluded that Michigan’s political system is “the Wild West … with no sheriff in town.”
Dark money means justice denied
High-rollers in many states exert undue influence over legislation and executive orders. But in Michigan, campaign cash also taints the judicial system.
The independent Michigan Campaign Finance Network reported that since 2000, state Supreme Court campaigns have been awash in nearly $40 million worth of television political advertisements, with the donors kept off the books. A similarly veiled process dominates campaigns for attorney general. In a state where candidates for the judiciary face virtually no professional standards or performance evaluations, critics say the judges, particularly Supreme Court justices, are merely “politicians in black robes.”
The State Bar of Michigan has engaged in attempts to fix this system by demanding full disclosure, to no avail. Jules Olsman, an attorney who serves on the State Bar board, said his clients routinely question the fairness of the state’s judicial process given the steady stream of campaign ads at election time.
“If the judge hearing my case received $10,000 from opposing counsel or their clients, I should have a right to know that,” Olsman said. “At this point, it’s more than a suspicion. It happens all the time.”
Weak or non-existent disclosure laws
The dark money that dominates Michigan politics takes on another definition in the daily workings of state courts, the legislature, the governor’s office and cabinet members. That’s because the state doesn’t require officials to disclose their financial holdings and outside income.
A judge may hear a case involving a lawsuit aimed at a corporation in which he has a financial interest, but the attorneys involved – and the jury – would have no way of knowing. Legislators can influence the outcome of bills that will directly affect businesses back home in which they serve as silent partners.
Recusals remain rare in Michigan courts, and they are even rarer in the state House and Senate. When apparent conflicts of interest arise due to a lawmaker’s occupation, it’s nearly unheard of for a fellow legislator to publicly call for an abstention.
In Michigan, the cozy relationships between well-heeled lobbyists and pliable lawmakers also remain largely in the dark. Under the weak disclosure rules, lawmakers can accept nominal gifts. But it is the duty of the lobbyist, not the lawmaker, to report these gifts.
In addition, state law requires those in the lobbying business to report their activities in such a vague format that the public cannot determine who is influencing whom. Lobbyists do not have to report which legislator or executive branch official they wined and dined unless they spent more than $59 in a month, or $375 in the calendar year, on that individual. Advocates of greater transparency say the top recipients of a lobbyist's largesse benefit from considerably more than what's disclosed.
Worse yet, lobbying firms also do not reveal which issues and legislation they advocated for or against.
Robert LaBrant, a veteran business lobbyist, concedes that the disclosure reports essentially “have no meaning.”