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Michigan’s government thrives on dark money

HOUGHTON — A November, 2015, State Integrity Investigation report revealed that Michigan received an F grade, which the report called “An honor system with no honor.” The 2015 State Integrity Investigation was done in partnership with Global Integrity, and provided a comprehensive assessment of state government accountability and transparency. In short, all three branches of the government are far more concerned with representing political action committees (PACs) backed by high-rolling dark money spenders than they are with representing the state’s residents.

It is a failure of state governments all across the country.

According to the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), only three states scored higher than a D+. Of Michigan’s neighbors, Wisconsin scored a D, Illinois scored a D+, Minnesota scored a D-. Michigan finished dead last.

The top of the pack includes “bastions of progressive government,” the report states, including California (ranked 2nd with a C-), and states notorious for corrupt pasts (Connecticut, 3rd with a C-, and Rhode Island, 5th with a D+). In those New England states, scandals led to significant reforms and relatively robust ethics laws, even if dubious dealings linger in the halls of government. The bottom (of the ranking) includes many western states that champion limited government, like Nevada, South Dakota and Wyoming, but also others, such as Maine, Delaware and dead-last Michigan, that have not adopted the types of ethics and open records laws common in many other states. Wisconsin scored a bit above Michigan in accountability of all three branches of government: Executive accountability scored a D, with a rank of 20th, Legislative scored an F, ranking 40th, and Judicial, likewise, received an F, ranking 33rd.

In those categories, Michigan ranked 50th, or dead last, in all three. Two other categories in which Michigan failed were Lobbying Disclosure (43rd), and Ethics Enforcement Agencies (47th).

The report also discusses the influence dark money has on all facets of the state government, including the Judicial Branch. Dark money is defined as political spending by nonprofit organizations, such as 501(c)(4) (social welfare) 501(c)(5) (unions) and 501(c)(6) (trade association) groups, that are not required to disclose their donors. Such organizations can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals and unions. In this way, their donors can spend funds to influence elections, without voters knowing where the money came from.

“High-rollers in many states exert undue influence over legislation and executive orders,” the CPI report stated. “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, the report stated. 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 report went on to say that the State Bar of Michigan has engaged in attempts to fix this system by demanding full disclosure, but to no avail. Jules Olsman, an attorney who served 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.”

According to a Sept. 24, 2019 article, “The rise of dark money in Michigan politics,” Wayne State University’s South End (thesouthend.wayne.edu), Michigan’s Secretary of State and former Wayne State Law School Dean Jocelyn Benson spoke at the second annual Paul A. Rosen Constitutional Law Series, located in the Spencer M. Partrich Auditorium. In the lecture, Benson brought up a comparative status of Michigan’s current campaign-finance laws to those of the rest of the country.

“For years, Michigan has consistently been ranked last by the Center of Public Integrity for its transparency and accountability laws,” Benson said.

Benson brought up a comparative status of Michigan’s current campaign-finance laws to those of the rest of the country, saying Michigan is falling drastically behind in regulating money individual legislators receive. Michigan, she said, is one of only two states that does not require legislators to disclose any other sources of income they may have or any other financial influence.

Benson, completely aware of the disconnect between legislators and their constituents, said what is needed to mend the relationship between legislators and those they represent.

“In my view,” she said, “if we are going to truly take seriously the importance of restoring the public’s trust in our democracy, we need to know some basic things about personal financial disclosure.”

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