Schuette account helped finance Whitmer attack ads

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
A composite picture of Michigan Gubernatorial candidates Bill Schuette, left, and Gretchen Whitmer during a meeting of the Detroit Economic Club, at the Sound Board theater at the Motor City casino, in Detroit, October 31, 2018.  (Photo illustration by David Guralnick/The Detroit News)

Lansing — A dark money group that ran primary and general election attack ads against now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was at least partially funded by an account tied to her Republican opponent.

The Bill Schuette Administrative Account donated $50,000 to Priorities for Michigan on Oct. 30, according to a new disclosure report filed with the federal government.

The contribution is the first and only known 2018 donation to Priorities for Michigan, a mysterious group that surfaced in the primary election with an online ad attacking Whitmer on health care from the political left, prompting accusations of Republican sabotage by the East Lansing Democrat’s campaign.

It was also the only political contribution of the year by the Schuette administrative account, which was typically used to reimburse the former attorney general and staff for travel, cell phone bills and other expenses.

Priorities for Michigan has not filed Michigan business or campaign finance paperwork and ran “issue ads” that did not require it to disclose donors under state law. But public television station records confirm the group has GOP ties. It is represented by attorney Eric Doster, who previously served as general legal counsel for the Michigan Republican Party and did not return a call seeking comment.

The apparent coordination by the groups is legal under Michigan law but could have been considered a violation if the spending was to support a federal candidate because of tougher rules at that level, said Craig Mauger of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

“This is an example of where an office holder or people close to them can raise money — and raise unlimited amounts of money — and then use that money to try to help pay for campaign ads like this,” he said.

Mauger’s nonprofit tracked at least $154,000 in television ad spending by Priorities for Michigan in the general election campaign.

As The Detroit News reported, Whitmer also benefited from dark money spending. A group called Progressive Advocacy Trust donated more than $2 million to groups that ran pro-Whitmer ads. Like Priorities for Michigan, the group does not appear to have filed any publicly available records with the state or federal governments.

The Whitmer campaign in November announced that TV stations in Grand Rapids, Flint and Traverse City had yanked a Priorities for Michigan ad it called “libelous and misleading.” The commercial suggested the East Lansing Democrat would declare Michigan a “sanctuary state,” which she had never proposed.

Priorities for Michigan also ran online ads in the primary that criticized Whitmer for failing to support a single-payer health care system backed by her Democratic rivals and for accepting “big money” from insurance companies, a reference to a fundraiser hosted by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan executives.

“This is something we’re seeing increasingly often,” Mauger said, noting Michigan’s lax disclosure laws. “We’re seeing partisan groups be able to hide behind our disclosure requirements to try to manipulate voters on the other side of the aisle.”

The Bill Schuette Administrative Account reported $36,200 in contributions during the fourth quarter of 2018, including $15,000 from the Michigan Cable Telecommunications Association and $10,000 from National Wine and Spirits of Michigan.

The administrative account reported spending $155,345 for the period, including the $50,000 donation to Priorities for Michigan. It also spent $10,778 on a staff holiday party at the Midland Country Club in December as Schuette prepared to leave office.

A former Schuette campaign spokesman was unaware of the spending and referred questions to campaign finance attorneys. Messages were left with lawyers and contact numbers listed in federal paperwork for the Bill Schuette Administrative Account.