A political group that helped elect Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) was recently required to pay a $37,500 and dissolve within 60 days after being found responsible for violating campaign finance laws.
Whitmer’s own campaign committee was also found guilty of coordinating with Build a Better Michigan on advertisements, though it’s yet unclear what specific penalties it will face. According to Bridge Michigan, Democratic Secretary of State Joceyln Benson concluded that Build a Better Michigan engaged in “express advocacy” in certain advertisements rather than the “issue advocacy” the ads claimed to be.
The specific examples cited by Benson in her letter to Build a Better Michigan’s attorney include the use of “candidate” in front of Whitmer’s name in one ad, and encouraging voters to take specific actions in another.
“The closing line of both ads, ‘tell your legislators, let’s get it done,’ does not satisfy the above definition of ‘issue advocacy.’ At no point does the content of the ad take a position on a specific issue. Instead the ads clearly identified then-candidate Gretchen Whitmer by name as a candidate for the office of Governor, rendering them express advocacy,” Benson explains in a letter to attorney Graham Wilson.
As such, the advertisements were required to “comply with the registration and disclosure requirements” of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, but failed to do so.
One of the ads in question can be viewed below:
The complaints were initially brought against Build a Better Michigan by the state’s Republican Party and the Michigan Freedom Fund. They alleged that Build a Better Michigan directly advocated for Whitmer without “disclosing it’s spending as ‘in-kind’ contributions to the Whitmer campaign,” Bridge Michigan explains, noting:
“If counted as in-kind contributions, spending would have violated state law by exceeding the cap on contributions from a single source. Michigan law exempts groups from campaign finance disclosure if they limit their messages to ‘issue advocacy,’ which promotes an issue or idea without directly promoting an individual candidate. Campaign finance watchdogs have noted this is often used as a loophole to avoid campaign finance regulations while advocating indirectly for a candidate.
Build a Better Michigan spent upwards of $2.7 million in support of Whitmer during her campaign, which has Republicans frustrated with the relatively small fine it was required to pay.
“Today, Benson cut yet another backroom deal which bails out her buddy, Gov. Whitmer, to the tune of millions of dollars. This shameful settlement sets a dangerous precedent on how Michigan’s campaigns will be financed in the future,” Republican Party spokesman Tony Zammit said, and former Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson agreed.
“I appreciate that the decision has been upheld that a campaign finance violation occurred, but I think the fine is exceedingly too small,” Johnson said. “It sends the wrong message to people. Transparency shouldn’t be optional for a small fee.”
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