Embezzlement probe clouds GOP senator's campaign finance push

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Sen David Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, listens closely to an aide before voting on a bill in May of 2017 at the Capitol in Lansing.

Lansing — The campaign treasurer for a Michigan senator pushing to overhaul campaign finance oversight is a suspect in an ongoing state police embezzlement investigation, prompting new questions over his motivation for the legislation.

State Sen. Dave Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, said this week his own history of campaign finance fines is unrelated to his legislation, which would shift compliance and enforcement authority from the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office to a new political commission.

But Robertson on Thursday declined to discuss the criminal investigation involving his former campaign treasurer and chief of staff, Erika Farley, and his office did not respond to a Friday voicemail seeking comment.

An animated Sen. David Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, waves his hands while talking with collegues as the Michigan Senate deliberated over a package of bills in February of this year.

Michigan State Police are leading the investigation into alleged embezzlement, and Farley is a suspect, spokeswoman Shanon Banner confirmed. State police received a complaint in August, she said, but the department is “not disclosing further information about the scope of the investigation.”

Farley’s attorney denied any wrongdoing by his client and said she is fully cooperating with state police. Longtime ally Matt Marsden accused Senate GOP leadership of making Farley a scapegoat and said he believes “the investigation may be larger in scope.”

Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for the Senate Republican caucus, confirmed that Farley no longer works for the Legislature, but she declined further comment on the situation. State records show Farley resigned as Robertson’s campaign treasurer Sept. 4.

“Any campaign finance issues that Sen. Robertson has, he is diligently working with the Secretary of State’s office to resolve,” McCann said. “The introduction of this legislation has nothing to do with Sen. Robertson having any (campaign finance) discrepancy or frankly any other members of the Senate who may have one time had an error in their reporting or filing.”

The full Senate on Thursday approved Robertson’s proposal in a 25-11 party-line vote. The legislation would create a new bipartisan committee to oversee campaign finance compliance, stripping that power from Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson, who will be the first Democrat to hold the post in 24 years.

Robertson said the 3-3 commission would "require bipartisan cooperation," but critics argue it could regularly deadlock, limiting campaign finance compliance efforts. The governor would appoint members from lists submitted by both major political parties.

Campaign finance issues

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, blasted Robertson for pushing the GOP power play bill while struggling to resolve his own campaign finance issues and a criminal investigation involving his campaign treasurer.

“He is saying the Secretary of State will no longer be the arbiter of campaign finance violations, but he’s in the middle of an investigation right now, introducing legislation that would take that away from them,” Ananich said. “That is extremely questionable.”

Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for current Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, said the department does not have any open investigations involving Farley.

But generally speaking, he said, “if a committee were to become aware that a committee staffer misused funds, they would go to the police and a county prosecutor’s office to report that. The Secretary of State’s office and Bureau of Elections does not conduct investigations into allegedly misused funds.”

Robertson owes $1,681 in campaign finance fees, but “the bureau of elections is working with Sen. Robertson’s committee to resolve their outstanding issues,” Woodhams said.

Johnson, the Republican secretary of state who will be forced out office by term limits at the end of the year, was elected to the state Senate last month and will take over from Robertson, who is also term-limited out of the Legislature.

Farley also briefly worked for Johnson’s Senate campaign in early 2017, according to state records that show payments to Farley in March, April and May of last year.

Genesee County Clerk John Gleason, a Democrat and former state lawmaker, this week accused Robertson of trying to “bury” his own campaign finance fines by proposing the new commission, which would include three Republicans and three Democrats.

The investigation of Robertson’s campaign treasurer, “just exacerbates it,” Gleason said Friday, noting Robertson was also assessed late fees as a county commissioner before he joined the Legislature.

“We had to fine him locally,” Gleason said. “This is a chronic issue that Mr. Robertson is dealing with, and it would appear to me he ought to start writing some checks instead of writing legislation.”

Criticism questioned

But David Forsmark, a political consultant who previously worked for Robertson, called the personal edge to Gleason’s comments “beneath contempt.”

“This is not on Dave, other than trusting Erika too much,” Forsmark said.

While he does not have direct knowledge of the embezzlement investigation, he said Farley made an "ultimatum" and forced him off Robertson’s campaign in 2014 when he began to raise issues about campaign spending.

“I think Dave trusted her completely,” Forsmark said. “That’s why he ends up with these fines and these kinds of things. I’m sure those notices go to her, and she just ignored them.”

Farley was Robertson’s longtime chief of staff and took over as his campaign treasurer when her husband, who had performed that duty, died “a few years ago,” said attorney Alex Rusek of White Law.

 “Right now, Erika has not been charged with a single thing. She’s always maintained that she has not embezzled any money of any kind and is working with (state police) to hopefully get to the bottom of any allegations against her.”

The full nature of those allegations is not clear, said Rusek, who added Farley was “a public servant for many years and really dedicated her life to public service.”

Marsen, whose Rev Six consulting firm worked on Robertson’s successful 2014 re-election campaign and now employs Farley, said she was fired from her job in the state Senate, where she was known to "speak up" and challenge bad ideas, either because of politics or policy.

“I think Erika is absolutely, unequivocally innocent of these falsehoods filed against her,” Marsden said. “I question whether or not this was Dave Robertson’s decision or whether this was directed by leadership so they could jam bills through his committee."

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, picked Robertson to chair the powerful Senate Elections Committee that this week advanced the controversial campaign finance legislation.

Senate leadership threw Farley “under the bus,” Marsden said, blaming the campaign finance issues on a flawed software program maintained by the Secretary of State’s office.

Robertson did not personally do anything wrong “other than making the poor choice of moving campaign finance bills when he has issues in his own backyard,” Marsden said.

With two weeks left in the legislative session, Robertson referenced Farley in a farewell speech he delivered Thursday on the Senate floor.

“The most difficult job anyone could have is taking my passions and turning them into words on the page,” Robertson said. “Erika Farley took those passions and turned them into Public Acts. I’ve tilted at a lot of windmills in my time; she bulldozed them for me. And I want to thank her for that.”


Twitter: @jonathanoosting