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Some state lawmakers are considering legislation that would help them get out of legal trouble if they violate Michigan’s campaign finance disclosure laws. But why would elected officials be interested in changing the rules to make it easier on political candidates who violate the law?
State Rep. Fred Durhal Jr., the bill’s primary sponsor, says: “I was approached by an individual who won an election and who owed campaign debts — fines for failure to file in a timely manner. The debts came out to — I think it was about $4,000 or whatever.”
When Rep. Durhal found out the secretary of state required prompt payment of these fines, he introduced legislation to let his fellow lawmakers set up an installment plan to pay off the fines over the course of a year. “And if they don’t do it,” Rep. Durhal says, “then that goes back into collections, and they’ll do whatever they have to do: going to court, garnishing — whatever that situation requires by law.”
We spoke with Rich Robinson, the executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonprofit organization that researches and analyzes money in Michigan politics. We asked Robinson how many elected officials really end up in such debt. According to him: “There are very few committees that incur large fines. Most committees don’t incur any fines to speak of.”
Rep. Durhal says that includes his own campaign committee. I remarked: “When I saw this piece of legislation, and that you were the sponsor, I immediately went to your campaign disclosure, and I noticed you’ve got a lot of late filings, etc. Now, some people might think, ‘Well, gee, he’s just looking out for himself.’” Rep. Durhal responded: “No, whatever late filings I’ve had, I paid them and my account is clear and I’m OK. This was not for me; it was done for someone else.”
When I commented that some people might draw those conclusions, Rep. Durhal replied: “They may. I mean, my records are public records. I invite the public to take a look at them.”
We did just that. A cursory glance at Rep. Durhal’s campaign finance disclosure reports shows a laundry list of late-filing notices and fees dating back to 1995. When printed out, there are more than 100 pages of correspondence between Rep. Durhal’s candidate committee and the state.
Now, when asked about these specifically, Rep. Durhal acknowledged past offenses, but says he is caught up with the state. State records confirm this, but several of the bill’s cosponsors also have a dubious record of compliance. Like Rep. Durhal, Rep. George Cushingberry has paid fines for campaign finance disclosure violations.
In 2005, the state attorney general even charged Rep. Cushingberry with election-law violations for failing to file required campaign finance disclosure reports and signing documents that said he had. The case was later dismissed by a circuit court judge on the grounds the state should have arranged an “amicable conciliatory agreement.” Rep. Cushingberry has not responded to our calls requesting comment.
Another bill sponsor is Rep. Lamar Lemmons Jr. His son, a former state representative, was fined more than $1,000 for failing to file two or more campaign finance statements. Rep. Lemmons has also not responded to our request for comment on his son’s fines or his support for this legislation.
Robinson says instances of large campaign finance fines are rare, and that a bill to allow politicians to establish payment plans for such fines is not a priority. “If I was to prepare a long list of problems that need to be addressed in the campaign finance reporting system and enforcement,” Robinson says, “I don’t think that would make the list at all.”
Mackinac Center Senior Legislative Analyst Jack McHugh adds that the attention may simply be misdirected: “If we’ve got members of the political class that are essentially acting as scofflaws and ignoring the laws that they’ve passed themselves and now trying to make it easier for them to do that, I rebel at that thought a little bit. Any person would who believes in the rule of law.” McHugh continues: “This is a perfect illustration of the priorities of the political class. First, take care of the political class. Second, everything else.”
It’s hard not to agree. With Michigan in such bleak economic condition, it seems like now might be the time for lawmakers to serve their constituents, not themselves.