July 8, 2014 at 7:58 pm

Land's ties to family business rise to fore in Senate race

Land & Co.'s still-vacant site that once was a trailer park has become campaign fodder, but Terri Lynn Land denies ever working for the firm. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)

Lansing— When Terri Lynn Land poured $1.66 million of her own money into her U.S. Senate campaign last year, she boasted about her family’s west Michigan real estate business that is credited as the source of her wealth.

“We’ve been fortunate enough to grow what started as a very small, family business into a successful Michigan-based company that employs hundreds of Michigan residents,” Land said in August 2013 after disclosing at least $34 million in assets tied to “my personal and family income.”

But as the November election quickly approaches, Land has separated herself from the actions of Land & Co. She has denied ever working for the company — despite public records suggesting otherwise — after Democrats criticized the firm for evicting residents of Land’s childhood trailer park and leveling it for redevelopment that hasn’t materialized.

The former Republican secretary of state has instead portrayed herself as a small business owner independent of her family’s fortune, which her husband, Dan Hibma, helped amass as a partner at Land & Co. Land recently released to The Detroit News her 2012 and 2013 personal income tax returns, filed separately from her husband’s returns.

The records show Land’s adjusted gross income was $44,726 in 2012 and $89,729 in 2013 — none of it from Land & Co. After sizable deductions for charitable giving, Land paid $1,196 in 2012 and $1,999 in 2013.

A spokeswoman for Land said the separate filings were a matter of financial prudence. “She filed her taxes individually rather than jointly because she was not involved in her husband’s businesses,” Heather Swift said. “An individual filing allowed her to file on time by April 15 rather than file for extensions.”

Land’s U.S. Senate financial disclosure forms list Hibma as an owner in Land & Co. and dozens of apartment complexes and other real estate holdings.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Land’s efforts to separate herself from her husband’s millions — which helped finance her past political campaigns — could be a strategic move to insulate herself from a populist blowback toward the wealthy.

“When people see a candidate being worth millions and millions of dollars, they can’t identify with that,” Sabato said.

Land & Co. associations

Questions about Land’s association with Land & Co. began this spring after she aired an Internet video ad touting her upbringing, helping her immigrant grandparents change bedsheets as a child in a motel connected to the family-owned Grandville trailer park where she grew up.

Land’s father, Paul Land, grew the family business from the La’Grande Grandville Motel and Trailer Park to a sprawling West Michigan portfolio of apartment complexes and commercial and industrial properties. As the company grew, the father of four daughters made his sons-in-law Roger Lucas and Hibma partners in the business, Land said.

In 2004, a Land & Co. subsidiary started by Hibma began closing the 170-unit trailer park to rezone the property for a still-unbuilt commercial venture. The company gave residents one-year’s notice and free rent, and offered to pay their relocation expenses, including moving the tenants’ homes.

Land’s Democratic Senate opponent, Rep. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township, highlighted the evictions in a May Internet ad and recently staged a press conference on the weed-choked site to condemn the Land family’s lack of development. Since Peters’ ad aired online, the company has told Grandville officials it has a new plan to redevelop the site with a mix of residential and commercial space.

“The fact it’s a family business ... if it’s her husband, she certainly profits from that as well,” Peters said. “... She regularly talks about being active with Land & Co.”

In recent interviews, Land has denied having an ownership or working connection to Land & Co.

“I’ve never worked for Land & Co.,” Land told The Detroit News. “I’ve never owned the trailer park or never owned any of the businesses.”

Unpaid company work

A Detroit News review of campaign contributions found 38 political donations Land made over 20 years in which her occupation is listed as an “owner,” “special projects manager” or “self-employed” at Land & Co.

Fifteen of the donations listing ownership in Land & Co. were attributed to the nearly $166,000 she spent on her successful 2002 secretary of state campaign, records show. Land’s campaign told The News the Land & Co. ownership title in her 2002 campaign records is erroneous — even though her husband was campaign treasurer at the time.

After The News inquired about Land’s business background, a Land & Co. spokesman acknowledged she has done unpaid work for the company when she was not in public office.

John Truscott, a Lansing public relations executive recently hired by Land & Co., said Land has worked for the family business as a volunteer over the years, doing special projects that included helping with bookkeeping, administrative work such as office reorganization and odd jobs.

“But she’s never been employed, she never paid taxes on any income or something like that from the company,” Truscott said.

Records show campaign donations listing Land & Co. as her employer began in 1990 and continued until 2010, when Land contributed $550 to the Macomb County Republican Committee during her last year in office as secretary of state.

Land & Co. “did give her a title” around 2001 and 2002 to make it clear to company employees that the boss’s wife was doing “a couple of special projects,” Truscott said.

Truscott acknowledged Land may have used the title in some public settings, but contended the multiple instances of her employment association with Land & Co. were errors perpetuated by the bookkeepers of campaigns to which she donated.

“We’re not trying to throw anybody under the bus or anything ... (but) somebody made a mistake, and it probably got repeated,” Truscott said.

Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said political campaigns typically rely on donors to supply information about their occupation and job title, as required by law.

“I would be very surprised if any campaign record keeper would list an occupation that wasn’t provided by the donor,” Robinson said.

When The News showed Land the records during a recent interview, she could not explain why her own campaign records listed her as an owner of Land & Co.

“My father wanted me to (become an owner), but he could never get me to join,” Land said.

Website credentials

To rebut the decade-old campaign finance records, Land’s campaign provided The News with a letter from Land & Co.’s longtime accountant saying Terri Land “has never had an ownership stake” in the company or its subsidiaries.

“In addition, to the best of my knowledge, Terri has never been involved in the management of Land & Co. in any way,” Grand Rapids accountant Mark Bardolph wrote in the letter.

Emails from 2013 obtained by The News show Land responding to questions from the Secretary of State’s Office using a Land & Co. email domain name. That same year, Land listed the same company email address on a report to the Internal Revenue Service about the fundraising activities of a nonprofit group she set up to support her service on the Republican National Committee, records show.

Over the years, Truscott said, Land has received an email address, a car and cellphone through the family business.

On the campaign trail, Land routinely refers to herself as a “small business owner.” She owns the Southview Apartments complex in Grand Rapids with her son through Green Light Management and a limited liability corporation and has insisted it’s a separate business from Land & Co.

Kent County property records show the Southview Apartments were purchased for $900,000 from a Land & Co. subsidiary in 2011 by the limited liability corporation.

But Land’s Senate campaign website makes no mention of her specific business and instead touts the success of Land & Co.

“Today, Land & Co. provides good-paying job opportunities for hundreds of west Michigan residents, and quality, affordable homes to thousands more,” the website says under the “About Terri” section.

The website appears to have confused some business leaders about her working background.

At a recent candidates’ forum sponsored by the Small Business Association of Michigan, the group’s president, Rob Fowler, introduced Land by saying she “worked in her family’s west Michigan real estate business.”

A spokesman for SBAM said he relied on information from Land’s campaign website.

When asked about Fowler’s reference to her family’s business, Land replied: “I never worked for Land & Co. I’m part of a family business, and (in) a family business, ... you all pitch in when you need to do that.”

Sabato, a congressional political handicapper, said Land is trying to have it both ways by highlighting her family’s business success when it’s politically convenient.

“It’s a classic example of resume enhancement when you take various grains of truth to construct an award-winning sand castle,” Sabato said. “It’s been done by candidates before. They want all of the good and none of the bad.”

clivengood@detroitnews.com

Terri Lynn Land says she has never worked for Land & Co. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)