Baird (HANDOUT PHOTO / The Detroit News)
Lansing— Gov. Rick Snyder’s decision to move a top aide onto the government payroll this week did not end calls from Democrats and government watchdog groups for the governor to disclose donors to a secret fund.
The Detroit News first reported Friday that Snyder’s office had ended the unusual arrangement of having Richard Baird work for the governor under a $100,000-a-year contract by a private nonprofit corporation, the New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify Fund, or NERD Fund. Baird is now a state employee paid $140,000 a year.
Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson said the move does not end questions about the behind-the-scenes role Baird has played during Snyder’s three years in office and confirms the arrangement was fraught with ethical issues because of the NERD Fund’s secret donors.
“It’s an admission of guilt,” Johnson said.
Snyder’s NERD Fund is a 501(c)4 not-for-profit “social welfare” organization that can accept unlimited donations from corporations without having to disclose the donors, unlike a political campaign committee. The NERD Fund raised $1.68 million and spent $1.53 million in 2011 and 2012, according to a tax return.
The Governor’s Office says the fund was designed to give taxpayers a break by paying Baird’s salary, travel expenses, renovations to the press auditorium and Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s hotel and airfare expenses.
Politicians from both political parties have similar funds set up to take donations from corporations to use for travel, meals and other expenses they don’t want to disclose on campaign finance reports, said Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
“Across the board, politicians ought to stay the hell away from these nonprofit corporations,” Robinson said. “I just don’t see any good reason anybody ought to be raising money in secret like that.”
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, a Republican, has had a nonprofit fund called Boost Oakland Business since 1995 and discloses his donors upon request.
“I think if you don’t release it, it looks like there’s something suspicious,” Patterson told The News. “We all talk about transparency and we either live it or not.”
Patterson, who refers to the fund as “B.O.B.,” says he uses the money for hosting special events and covering up to $1,000 of travel expenses for county employees who attend the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual policy conference on Mackinac Island.
“It’s easier to hit your supporters for a donation sometimes, than getting them to donate from their personal account,” Patterson said of getting corporate donations made to the fund.
Snyder testified last week in a deposition in Detroit’s bankruptcy case that he doesn’t know who donates to the fund — an admission that’s raised some eyebrows. “It’s almost dereliction of duty if he didn’t know who the donors were,” Robinson said.
The NERD Fund lists three directors in state corporation records: Charlie Secchia, a Grand Rapids real estate developer; Brad Canale, a University of Michigan fundraiser; and David Nicholson, a senior executive at PVC Chemicals Inc. in Detroit. The NERD Fund directors did not return phone calls seeking comment Friday.
Johnson has suggested Baird should have been a registered lobbyist because he was influencing decision-making by Snyder, state Treasurer Andy Dillon and other covered officials while technically being employed by the NERD Fund through his consulting firm, MI Partners LLC.
Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said Friday that Johnson was “sadly” playing politics. “Rich does not engage in lobbying activity,” Wurfel said in an email. “He works on issues of state government transformation and operational effectiveness, employee engagement, and talent recruitment and development. We and Rich are in full compliance with the state’s lobby act.”