Johnson: GOP pressure on campaign finance 'substantial' but not influential

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who is running for re-election, during a campaign stop at the Rochester Cider Mill.

Lansing — Republican Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson said she faced “substantial pressure” to make decisions based on "what’s best for the team" on campaign finance oversight but didn't succumb over her eight years in office.

The comments come as neither Johnson nor her office have taken a position on a controversial bill that would strip campaign finance oversight from the secretary of state. But Michigan needs to find a "nonpartisan" alternative to the current system, said Johnson, the term-limited secretary who will become a state senator in January.

“To me, you treat everyone the same, and I’ve always told my staff that,” Johnson told The Detroit News. “But there is substantial pressure because you do belong to a party; and that would be on either side of the aisle.”

The Republican-controlled Senate approved legislation last week that would shift compliance and enforcement authority from the Michigan secretary of state to a new political commission within the Department of State that is modeled after the Federal Election Commission. Three appointees would be Democrats, and the three others would be Republicans. 

The House has until the end of this week to consider the legislation, but Republican Rep. Aaron Miller of Sturgis has not yet decided whether his Elections and Ethics Committee will hear testimony on the bills, a House GOP spokesman said.

The legislation would create a new bipartisan committee to oversee campaign finance compliance, essentially removing the responsibility from Democratic Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson. Critics have said the 3-3 commission would regularly deadlock, “one of the flaws” noted by Johnson.  

Campaign finance compliance is "part of the Secretary of State office and always needs to be, but we need to come up with a way to depoliticize it," Johnson said. 

Since Michigan secretary of state candidates are nominated at partisan conventions, partisan pressure is substantial, Johnson said.

But she noted the pressures had "zero influence" on the decisions made in her office.

“Most people wouldn’t feel this way, but there are operatives on both sides that do expect you to do what’s best for the team," she said.

Ruth Johnson

Tougher laws for disclosure also are needed, she said, expressing hope that she may be able to advocate on behalf of such laws in the Senate.

A Johnson-GOP tiff

Johnson has battled with fellow Republicans in the past.

In November 2013, Johnson announced plans to create a rule requiring greater transparency for disclosing the sponsors for advocacy issue ads, an effort that followed a request from the State Bar of Michigan for a declaratory ruling for more disclosure of judicial campaign ad sponsors.

"In a country where free speech is protected, these ads are part of the political landscape and we can't stop them – but when they try to influence an election, we can make sure the public knows who is paying for them," she said in a statement.

Within a month, the Republican-led Legislature circumvented Johnson’s effort and passed a law, signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, that blocked public disclosure of the names of contributors to issue advertising campaigns. Then-Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Arlan Meekhof argued that requiring disclosure of individual donors to groups sponsoring issue ads would violate free speech rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

In the current controversy, Benson said Sen. Dave Robertson’s “hyper-partisan” bill would “gut” enforcement of the state’s campaign finance law and undermine Benson’s bipartisan effort “to take Michigan from worst to first in ethics and transparency.”

“Their action is an affront to every taxpayer who wants and deserves a government that is transparent and accountable,” Benson said of the Senate passage earlier this month. “I continue to believe, if not hope, that House Republicans want to work together on solve problems, not create them and will reject this bill on its face." 

Shortly after the Senate approved the bill, The Detroit News reported that Robertson’s former campaign treasurer and chief of staff is a suspect in an ongoing state police embezzlement investigation.

The former campaign treasurer, Erika Farley, had a brief contract for Johnson’s Senate campaign in early 2017. Johnson declined to discuss Farley’s work because of the ongoing investigation by the Michigan State Police.

Guarding against partisanship

Checks and balances are in place to prevent partisanship from intruding into campaign finance compliance, said Chris Thomas, the state director of elections from 1981 to 2017.

The duty has fallen to the Michigan Bureau of Elections since 2010, Thomas said, and, before then, was handled largely by the Secretary of State Department's legal minds. If secretaries of state were under pressure from their parties, it wasn’t felt by officials responsible for campaign finance compliance, he said.

“In both situations, it was established with the view that the law is as it's written,” Thomas said. “I have never experienced a secretary of state personally coming to me or to others on a compliance matter.”

The proposed commission will likely experience many of the same frustrations as the Federal Elections Commission, whose bipartisan gridlock garners little compliance, Thomas said.

“I think people in Lansing know that very well, and I think that’s what they’re looking for,” he said.

Genesee County Clerk John Gleason, a Democrat who served with Robertson in the state Legislature, rejected the idea that the current process is partisan. He said Robertson's legislation is a way to escape increased scrutiny under Benson, who campaigned on the promise to make it "harder to cheat and easier to vote" in elections. 

"He had the ability to introduce this bill under a Republican secretary of state the whole time that he’s been in Lansing," Gleason said.

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