Macomb Dems battle over bingo, campaign mailers

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News
State Sen. Steve Bieda

This story has been updated to correct the year of the fine given to the Michigan Democratic Party and the agency that levied it.

Warren — Democrats in Macomb County are squaring off over a complaint filed with the Michigan Lottery Bureau by a state senator who's one of 17 candidates running for the open county clerk's job.

The complaint, filed Monday by state Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, alleges the Mount Clemens-based Philip A. Hart Democratic Club is misusing its bingo license to harm his campaign and boost one of his rivals, former state Rep. Fred Miller.

But this is no game. 

Bieda is one of six Democrats and 11 Republicans running to fill the remaining two years of the unexpired term of former Clerk Karen Spranger, who was removed by court order earlier this year. The top vote-getter in each party in the Aug. 7 primary will face off in November.

In his complaint, Bieda, a Democratic state lawmaker for 14 years, says he has been the focus of two “hit” mailers from the Philip A. Hart Club, a federal political action committee that uses its bingo license for fundraising.

“I think what they are doing to me is wrong and their use of a license is possibly illegal and needs to be looked at by authorities,” Bieda said Tuesday. “Worse, I think it's appalling they are doing this under the name of Philip A. Hart – a former Michigan Democrat who was so well respected that he was referred to as the 'conscience of the U.S. Senate."

A mailer sent out by the club says Bieda was cited by the Federal Election Commission for "excessive, prohibited and impermissible" contributions to his congressional campaign, which he ended earlier this year to run for county clerk instead.

Bieda countered that letters he received from the FEC were not citations but requests for more information. All contributions were subsequently allowed by the FEC, he said

Another mailer from the Hart Club says Bieda reported to the Michigan Secretary of State that he received more than $16,000 in meals and drinks paid for by lobbyists and questioned whether he took unreported trips to Turkey and Los Angeles, also funded by lobbyists.

Bieda said the meals from lobbyists were properly documented, spanned 14 years and did not involve taxpayer dollars. As for the trips, he said claims that others paid for them were false.

Also at issue, Bieda said, is the club's  positive newspaper and mail advertising for Miller.

“We estimate they have spent over $75,000 in newspaper ads and mailings for Miller and an unknown amount to attack me,” said Bieda. “He exaggerated matters, inferred I was in trouble and in general made it sound as if I’m not qualified to hold the office."

Miller, also a former Macomb County commissioner, lost to Spranger in 2016 by 635 votes. He did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

The Hart Club's treasurer, Roger Holtslander, provided a statement from the club that defended its actions.

"We could not have printed it if Steve Bieda had not done it. All the information shared about Steve Bieda by the Phil Hart Democratic Club is from public records, and cited sources," the statement said.

"The PHDC follows all the rules and regulations required by law or agency, and files all the required reports which are available to the public," the statement said.

The Philip A. Hart Club defines itself as a 501(c) nonprofit to qualify for a state bingo license.

In 2014, the club was put on probation by the state for improper activity and following a similar review in 2016, the Michigan Lottery Bureau suspended the club's bingo license. And in 2017, the Federal Election Commission fined the Michigan Democratic Party $500,000 for excessive campaign contributions and bad bookkeeping tied to bingo games.

“The Philip A. Hart group is an organization shrouded in secrecy,” said Bieda. “Nobody knows how many members its has or whom they are – some county Democrats have attempted to visit the office and been told it's off limits.”

Macomb County’s top countywide officeholder, Democratic county Executive Mark Hackel, said the Hart Club functions as a “slush fund” to promote or attack candidates.

Hackel said he found the negative campaigning on Miller's behalf so “offensive” that he sent out a mailer to the county’s Democratic voters criticizing Miller and supporting Bieda.

Bieda's complaint alleges the Hart Club's bingo games and how it uses the proceeds violate the Michigan Campaign Finance Act's intent "that proceeds from games regulated under the Act be used for charitable rather than political purposes."

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