Political Insider: Public servants, rich and poor

Detroit News staff

Michigan House members among richest, poorest

When it comes to personal wealth, Michigan's congressional delegation is a tale of two House members.

Freshman U.S. Rep. Dave Trott is one of the wealthiest members of Congress.

The Birmingham Republican, an attorney who built up foreclosure processing and other businesses, is the fifth wealthiest of the 535 members in the U.S. House and Senate at an estimated worth in 2013 of $200.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It is a bipartisan club topped by GOP Rep. Darrel Issa of California at $448 million followed by three Democrats — Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia at $254 million, Rep. John K. Delaney of Maryland at $222 million and Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado at $213 million.

By contrast, the new dean of Congress, Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Detroit, is considered in the poorhouse. Conyers — who almost didn't make last year's primary ballot because of disqualified petition signatures until a federal judge intervened — is the fourth poorest member at an estimated worth of negative-$187,500.

The longest-serving active member of Congress has had a projected negative net worth since 2010, according to the center. Wife Monica Conyers, a former Detroit city council member, served more than two years in prison for pleading guilty to accepting at least a $6,000 bribe for her deciding vote on the 2007 Synagro Technologies Inc. sludge contract, and a federal judge ended her probation in August.

The center found that Rep. Conyers in 2013 had no assets, but still is on the hook for paying off a mortgage of $50,000 to $100,000, a personal loan of $10,000 to $15,000 and a student loan of at least $100,000 or more.

House, Senate seating arrangements draw complaint

New state Rep. Todd Courser is complaining about how he was awarded his seat and desk in the House of Representatives. He also claims the seat assignment process isn't as random as it appears and doesn't follow the rules.

"While the seat one sits in may seem trivial, there are much deeper issues going on at the root of what really happens," the Lapeer Republican writes in one of his regular online missives to followers. He goes on to claim the seat selection process is a sham that's perpetrated by leadership to maintain control.

Under a state law going back to the days of part-time lawmakers who had no other Lansing desks besides the ones in the House and Senate chambers, members begin a session by choosing where they want to sit according to a lottery process.

Lawmakers announce their choices as balls containing their assigned numbers are randomly drawn from a box by children. The process goes by seniority. The first lottery is conducted among third-termers, then second-termers and down the line.

A more-recent tradition in the era of term limits is for leaders in advance to hand out envelopes in which they suggest members choose certain seats so veteran lawmakers are paired with rookies. Courser interprets this practice to indicate the process is fixed.

But lawmakers can ignore the leadership suggestions in choosing among the available seats as their numbers are drawn, so the system remains a true lottery, said Gideon D'Assandro, spokesman for House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant.

Courser has a different opinion. It's a charade, disrespectful of each lawmaker's constituency, makes alliances between like-minded lawmakers more difficult and is "how the machine keeps its grip on power," he writes.

He is one seat away from another new GOP House member who shares his tea partyish leanings, Cindy Gamrat of Plainwell. They have launched a "contract for liberty" indicating they'll push fiscally and socially conservative legislation, despite not sitting together.

"For the record, I must say, I am completely fine with the seat I have been assigned, I have no complaints whatsoever, but that does not in any way make these actions any less disturbing or unlawful," Courser adds in his Internet post.

In response, Cotter said seat selection suggestions have been made by leaders for at least three terms and likely longer than that.

"To our knowledge, no member has objected to the process before," he said in a statement. "In fact, many find it quite useful."

Donor raises his profile in state races

Michigan appears to have at least one new political mover and shaker when it comes to donating to statewide races.

ETC Capital LLC — a Farmington Hills investment firm set up by Manoj Bhargava of 5-Hour Energy shot fame — was the 46th largest donor to state races at $3.4 million, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from various public sources.

The great majority of Bhargava's money went to GOP causes, such as $2.8 million to the Republican Governors Association and scattered donations in Arizona and Georgia races. Another $75,000 went to Democratic groups.

The top five donors in Michigan were mostly the usual suspects, with the Michigan House Democratic Fund placing first at $2.9 million, followed by the House Republican campaign at $2.3 million, the GOP Senate campaign at $2.1 million and the Democratic-friendly United Auto Workers union at $2.1 million.

But the largest state race individual donor, according to the center, was Farmington Hills attorney Richard H, Bernstein, who contributed $1.9 million in his successful quest to gain a seat on the Michigan Supreme Court. Michigan's first blind justice comes from the powerful Sam Bernstein law firm, whose "Call Sam" television ads — without Richard's presence in them — dominated the airwaves during the campaign.

Dingell says she'll tackle 'partisan bickering'

Freshman U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell apparently is going to be one of the Democrats' key point people to defend the Obama administration on natural resources policies.

The Dearborn Democrat, who has succeeded husband and former House Energy and Commerce Chairman Emeritus John Dingell, has chosen to be the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee's new oversight and investigations subcommittee. The subcommittee chairman is Rep. Louie Gohmert, a tea party Republican from Texas who unsuccessfully challenged John Boehner for House speaker and hasn't so far been punished for it.

The subcommittee intends to examine what Republicans argue is selective enforcement of certain rules and laws at the Bureau of Land Management, among others, as well as tardy and inadequate disclosure of requested documents and emails between government officials and environmental groups.

"I plan to hold this administration's feet to the fire for the good of every household in America," Gohmert said in a statement. "This economy is ready to do amazing things if we loosen the death grip that this administration has had by using over 70,000 pages of new regulations each year."

For her part, Dingell said, "I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure government is doing what it is supposed to do to protect our nation's natural resources. We have worked in a bipartisan way in Michigan to protect our lakes and open spaces, and we must continue that work when those threats come from Washington."

She also has indicated she wants to stop "partisan bickering." The pledge is about to be put to the test.

Contributors: Gary Heinlein and Richard Burr