Lawsuit seeks to bar Detroit clerk from certifying incumbent councilwoman Janee Ayers for ballot

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — A resident challenging at-large Councilwoman Janee Ayers' eligibility for the August primary election is asking a judge to block any efforts by Detroit election officials to put her name on the ballot. 

Leigh Reed-Pratt this week filed a challenge to Ayers' eligibility for the ballot over a claim that Ayers had at least two outstanding amended annual reports, from 2018 and 2020, that were required to be filed under the Michigan Campaign Finance Act. The challenge noted Ayers signed her affidavit of identity for the primary asserting she had no unresolved paperwork, fines or fees. 

Detroit City Councilwoman Janee Ayers

Under Michigan law, candidates must attest that their campaign finance reports have been filed and any late fees have been paid when they launch their campaigns. 

But Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey, in a Thursday letter responding to Reed-Pratt's challenge, disagreed. Winfrey noted that the Michigan Court of Appeals has said the law does not require a clerk "to consider whether [the candidate's] statements were false ..."

"My only duty is to ensure that the candidate who submitted the AOI (affidavit of identity) asserts that she knew the penalty for lying about campaign finance filings was perjury," Winfrey's letter reads. "My duty is simply to review the document, not look behind it."

Winfrey could not be reached for comment Friday.

The Thursday lawsuit filed in Wayne County Circuit Court against Ayers, Winfrey and Detroit's Election Commission argues Wayne County's Campaign Finance Division confirmed on Tuesday that Ayers had seven outstanding reports when she signed an affidavit to run for a second, four-year term on April 6. 

The move, it adds, is a violation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act and should prevent Ayers from having her name listed on the ballot Aug. 3. 

The city's Election Commission is comprised of three members: Winfrey, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones and Detroit's Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia.

Despite being provided evidence of the delinquent filings from the county, the suit contends, Winfrey has indicated in a Thursday letter to Reed-Pratt's attorney, Andrew Paterson, that she intends to move forward with recommending Ayers be certified.

Ayers is certified on the city's unofficial candidate list. As of late Friday, a completed candidate list had not been publicly released. Winfrey has said the city’s primary ballot must be finalized by May 11.

Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett wrote to Winfrey on Tuesday that Ayers had seven outstanding reports. They were filed on April 25, after the filing deadline. Garrett noted that she'd contacted the Michigan Secretary of State for confirmation of whether the issue rose to the level of a finance act violation. A determination wasn't immediately provided, a copy of the letter notes. 

Lisa Williams, a spokesperson for Garrett, could not be reached Friday for additional comment on the matter.

Tracy Wimmer, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State's Office, said local officials decide whether to accept or reject the filing and the state has no role. 

Paterson's circuit court filing argues Winfrey "has a statutory legal duty not to certify” Ayers’ name to the Detroit Election Commission to appear on the ballot, because the councilwoman “submitted an affidavit of identity containing a false statement” saying she did not have any outstanding reports, fines or fees, but the Wayne County clerk confirmed that she did. 

“The Wayne County Clerk’s investigation clearly determined that Defendant Ayers’ campaign committee had 7 outstanding amended campaign finance reports that were due on the date (April 6 2021) Defendant Ayers signed her affidavit of identity,” the Thursday filing argues. “The Wayne County Clerk’s findings are conclusive and binding under the Michigan Campaign Finance Act.”

Detroit-based attorney Melvin Butch Hollowell, who is representing Ayers, said Friday he was pleased with Winfrey's decision to reject the "frivolous challenge" to her candidacy, "which is nothing more than a misguided effort to suppress the vote."

"Councilwoman Ayers has, at all times, been fully compliant with Michigan’s election laws, and she looks forward to continuing to fight for Detroiters on the city council," he said.

Hollowell also contends the lawsuit is frivolous and said he fully expects it will be dismissed. 

"There are certain requirements that you have to meet; she (Ayers) has met them," he said. "The law is very clear that the clerk only has the authority to examine the facial filing of the affidavit of identity, which (Ayers) filed and she filed in a timely fashion."

Hollowell said other lawsuits have been brought over candidate affidavits and rejected by circuit and appeals courts and the Supreme Court. Hollowell added that Garrett's office is "mistaken" on Ayers' filings and reiterated that they were done in compliance with the law.

Garcia echoed Hollowell, telling The News: "The issue has been raised before by the same people (Paterson) and given the outcome of those cases, we feel confident of the outcome in this one."

Ayers was appointed to Detroit's council in February 2015 to finish out the final year of the term of Councilwoman Saunteel Jenkins, who resigned. She was elected to a full, four-year term as an at-large member of the council in 2017. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan's eligibility also was challenged this week by fellow mayoral contender Anthony Adams, who claimed Duggan had missed filing required paperwork ahead of signing his affidavit for his run for a third term.

Garrett on Tuesday walked back findings from a day earlier that Duggan had missing campaign finance documents with her office, citing a "miscommunication."

She said Duggan's filings are in order in a move that would allow Winfrey to clear him for the ballot.

cferretti@detroitnews.com