Snyder shifts anonymous donations to aid Flint efforts

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s short-lived flirtation with a presidential run last year is now helping him pay bills related to the Flint water crisis.

The embattled Republican governor is redirecting anonymous contributions to his “Making Government Accountable” nonprofit fund to cover costs associated with the Flint crisis, including payments to a private attorney who helped him prepare for his March 17 congressional testimony in Washington, D.C.

Snyder advisers and supporters created the tax-exempt fund in April 2015, raising money for the governor to tour the country and tell “the Michigan story” as he flirted with a run for the nation’s highest office. It was an effort he cut short last May to focus on solving what he called “historic issues.”

The tax-exempt fund can accept unlimited and anonymous contributions from individuals or corporations. Records show at least half a million dollars in donations have been diverted to two other Snyder funds now covering various Flint expenses, including one he formed with the promise of additional transparency.

“We don’t know where the money is coming from, and we can’t as a public judge whether that individual or that corporation is getting something in return,” said Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “… If you’re giving money to help Flint, why would you not want your name disclosed?”

The Governor’s Club, Snyder’s 527 political action committee, reported a $250,000 donation from Making Government Accountable on Feb. 9. It was the only donation listed in a first-quarter filing with the Internal Revenue Service.

Spokeswoman Anna Heaton told The Detroit News Snyder is using the Governor’s Club to pay attorney Mark Paoletta of the DLA Piper law firm in Washington, D.C., who “assisted in preparing the governor for congressional testimony.”

Snyder spent nearly four hours before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on March 17, testifying on the Flint water contamination crisis and answering questions from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The governor has faced criticism for using taxpayer money to hire outside attorneys for Flint-related litigation and investigations. But Snyder did not use public funds to pay Paoletta or his firm, said Heaton, who added the attorney contract includes payment for follow-up communications with the committee.

At least $225,000 in contributions to Making Government Accountable, the fund that helped Snyder explore a presidential run, has also been transferred to his Moving Michigan Forward 501(c)4 nonprofit fund, according to a voluntary disclosure report posted online.

The governor previously used Moving Michigan Forward to hire public relations experts to assist with the response to the Flint water crisis. The fund website is now accepting contributions it says will be used to help “expand the people of Michigan’s response to help the residents of Flint.”

Snyder created Moving Michigan Forward in January 2014 as what he called a transparent alternative to his controversial New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify fund, which raised eyebrows by using anonymous donations to pay the salary of a top aide and cover the living expenses for then-Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.

The Moving Michigan Forward board has consistently listed donors online. But the new fund has not proved as transparent as originally promised because it has begun accepting large sums from other funds that do not require disclosure, Mauger said.

Of the $525,000 in contributions reported by Moving Michigan Forward between the first quarter of 2015 and 2016, 85 percent came from other nonprofits tied to Snyder that do not report donors, according to Mauger’s analysis.

“I don’t think (Snyder) is living up to the standard he was holding himself to before the November 2014 election, when he was taking donations from corporations and outside entities and listing them,” Mauger said. “Since the November 2014 election, things have mostly changed.”

Moving Michigan Forward raised a total of $295,000 in the first quarter of 2016, according to a voluntary disclosure, with the majority of the money coming from Making Government Accountable.

The fund reported spending $179,000 on direct mail, telephone town halls, robo calls, text alerts and billboards in Flint during the first three months of the year.

Making Government Accountable donations, transferred to both Moving Michigan Forward and the Governor’s Club, “have already been used and will continue to be used” for recovery and outreach efforts in Flint, Heaton confirmed.

The fund follows “all applicable statutes,” but will not disclose donor names, she told The News.

“The donors for Making Government Accountable are not going to be disclosed because they gave money with the understanding that their personal information would not be disclosed, in accordance with federal law,” Heaton said.

Snyder is not the only politician who has moved money between funds, according to Mauger, who said the practice makes it difficult for the public to track the flow of money. That’s a problem, he said, even if the money is ultimately used for a good cause, such as Flint relief.

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