Thanedar discloses ties to radio hosts who promoted him

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
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Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shri Thanedar acknowledges supporters during an informal get-together at the Horace L. Sheffield Jr. Center in Detroit, Michigan on August 4, 2018.

Lansing — Two high-profile Detroit activists who endorsed Shri Thanedar for governor were paid campaign consultants at the same time they hosted and praised the Democrat on their radio shows earlier this year, raising ethical questions about the media appearances.

The Rev. David Alexander Bullock, who Thanedar would later officially hire as his campaign manager, was first paid as a consultant in late April, according to a revised state disclosure report Thanedar filed Sunday evening, two days ahead of the Democratic primary.

The wealthy Ann Arbor entrepreneur submitted the amended report after acknowledging his initial filing contained errors. It had accounted for $2.1 million of the $9.6 million his campaign now reports spending this year through July 22.

The report shows Bullock and a group linked to the Rev. Horace Sheffield were paid for consulting work at around the same time they each hosted or praised him on their Superstation 910-AM talk radio shows, effectively giving him free publicity in the Metro Detroit market.

Station owner Kevin Adell said Monday that 910-AM had directed hosts to tell management about campaign connections, a policy that was not followed. Thanedar also tried to hire two of his station employees and, without realizing he was the owner, “asked me if he could give me money on the side” for more commercials, Adell said.

“He thought I was some maître d' at a restaurant that he could grease my palms to get a better table,” Adell told The Detroit News, noting political ads are subject to Federal Communications Commission regulations that make impromptu arrangements impossible. 

Thanedar "unequivocally" denied the claims by Adell, calling them "patently false and baseless."

"Shri has never paid any journalist for a radio interview or any kind of press coverage," the Thanedar campaign said in a statement. "David Bullock and Horace Sheffield have been paid for their consulting services only."

Bullock did not disclose any official ties to Thanedar when he had him as a guest on his May 8 radio show. He wore a Thanedar campaign shirt during the interview, showing it off for viewers on a live video stream as he repeatedly criticized fellow Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Gretchen Whitmer.

Expert: Ethics demanded disclosure

Thanedar or Bullock should have acknowledged their professional relationship during any radio interviews they did even though they were not legally required to do so, said Bob Kolt, a professor at Michigan State University who teaches public relations ethics.

“It should have been labeled as a support endorsement or paid advertising,” Kolt said. “But this is not the first time this has happened in Detroit or anywhere else. Is it unethical? It is. The law is what you must do, and ethics is what you should do.”

The state disclosure report shows Thanedar first paid Bullock for consulting on April 24, about a month before he announced the Highland Park minister as his campaign manager on May 22. He had paid Bullock $24,000 through July 22.

Bullock said earlier Monday “the payment was not for coming on the radio show.” Instead, Thanedar had paid him for advice on public policy issues his campaign should focus on, such as municipal revenue sharing.

Bullock noted he’d previously hosted another Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Abdul El-Sayed, on his show in February. Thanedar was seeking input on policy and messaging when he first tapped Bullock for consulting work, Bullock said.

Thanedar is a “PR genius,” he said. “That’s what he does well. He is very committed to messaging and messaging to people who he’s trying to garner support from. I think it would be smart for any candidate to talk to folks who are on the ground so they can hone their messages."

But on-air disclosure should have been a no-brainer, said Jane Briggs Bunting, a former school of journalism director at Michigan State University and head of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government.

“If you have some sort of financial or any other sort of relationship with an individual who’s in a political campaign you have an obligation to be up front and honest,” she said. “If you’re getting paid as a consultant, that should be discussed, and then the individual listeners have an added fact to consider when they’re deciding how valid or valuable your talk show or information was.”

The Thanedar campaign has also paid $31,392 for phone banking and consulting to the Ecumenical Ministries Alliance, which shares an address with Sheffield’s church, New Destiny Christian Fellowship in Detroit, and is connected to the Sheffield Center where Thanedar hosted a Saturday rally.

Sheffield told The Detroit News that, unlike Bullock, he never had Thanedar on his show without “letting people know I supported his candidacy and had done work for his campaign.”

“Any time I mentioned anything about Shri Thanedar or any other candidate, I made sure my opinions were based on the fact I’d endorsed Thaendar,” Sheffield said.

910-AM suspends Sheffield

But Adell said Monday afternoon that he is suspending Sheffield from the station, pending further investigation. Sheffield had told him he was not getting money from the Thanedar campaign Adell said.

The station removed Bullock from its lineup in late May on the same day Thanedar named him campaign manager. Adell said the station has a policy, reiterated in a Monday memo to all on-air hosts, that management must be “NOTIFIED IMMEDIATELY if anyone is working for any political candidate.”

Adell said he is “apolitical” and not backing any candidate in Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary. “But you’ve got to follow the rules,” he said. “We don’t want anyone to have an edge.”

Former 910-AM host Steve Neavling first accused Thanedar of paying Bullock and Sheffield in a combative radio interview with the candidate on May 16.

Adell told The News he gave Neavling his blessing to confront Thanedar despite the possibility the candidate could pull advertising dollars from the station. “I thought the guy was wrong when he wanted to pay me (on the side),” Adell said. “So when he says he denies it, he’s lying.”

Radio shows that regularly have political candidates on and interview them from time to time fall under a “news exception” for equal air-time rules, said Karole White, president and CEO of the Michigan Association of Broadcasters.

“Whether or not the company knows the host may or may not be consulting with the candidate, that would be an editorial decision made by each station.”

Radio stations like 910-AM that require hosts to secure their own advertisers have “blurred the lines” in media ethics, Kolt said. But failing to disclose a paid relationship with a guest “is a conflict of interest.”

Thanedar’s “problem was he didn’t disclose until he had to on his forms, and the people he was working with didn’t seem to disclose until much later,” Kolt said. “It could be considered a form of paid advertisement.”

Thanedar’s amended disclosure shows he’d spent more than $10.3 million on his campaign for the full election cycle through July 22, including nearly $6 million on television and digital ads, production and marketing.

The wealthy businessman has largely self-funded his own campaign. As of Thursday, Thanedar had loaned his campaign $12.9 million but has been repaid $2.3 million, meaning he’d sunk a total of about $10.6 million of his own money into the race.

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