Michigan’s public disclosure laws slammed

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan has the country’s weakest laws requiring public disclosure of information that would allow citizens to understand what interest groups are doing to influence state policy-making, according to the results of an annual national report released Monday.

The Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity, two nonprofits pushing for transparency and higher ethics in government, said Michigan was last among 11 states that all received failing grades for their efforts to control corruption by public servants.

In a press conference, Common Cause Michigan Executive Director Melanie McElroy and Michigan Campaign Finance Network Director Rich Robinson said the state has earned the dishonor.

The leaders of the groups cited a law that protects influence peddlers from saying who’s paying for their “interest” ads, the lack of required personal financial disclosure by top elected officials and what they said are weak reporting requirements for lobbyists.

“It was appalling that a great state like Michigan that used to lead ... has fallen to a failing grade,” McElroy said. “It’s time to make government accountable to the people.”

The report examines state laws and policies designed to prevent and expose public corruption. “The shadowy aspects of Michigan’s money-driven politics serve as a key reason why the state ranks last among the 50 states,” the authors said.

They especially criticized a hastily passed 2013 bill from majority GOP lawmakers, signed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, that enshrined in state law the anonymity of donors who pay for issue campaigns that praise or slam candidates without specifically telling citizens how to vote.

The report’s authors said it reveals “the lengths to which they’d go to maintain the state’s secret system of funding election campaign activities.”

Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, responding to concerns from the State Bar of Michigan about millions of dollars in secret spending on judicial campaigns, decided to call for the reporting of contributors and their donations to issue campaigns — some of which are thinly disguised candidate ads.

“A Senate committee was meeting in the Capitol to discuss and approve a bill that would double the maximum amount that individuals could contribute to legislative, executive and judicial candidates,” said the study’s authors. “The senators were told that the higher limits were unnecessary because 99 percent of Michiganians never give the maximum amount.

“Then something puzzling happened. In a rare move, the legislators called a recess midway through the session. A lobbyist in the audience who was friendly with the committee chairman, it was later learned, received an urgent phone call warning that Secretary of State Ruth Johnson had just announced new administrative rules requiring the disclosure of campaign donors in all circumstances.”

Lawmakers who pushed through the legislation cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said such spending is a constitutional form of free speech. They argued that protecting contributors from having their names and donations made public is a way to protect free speech.

Robinson, whose watchdog group tracks spending intended to influence government, also criticized the fact that Michigan law requires lobbyists to report interest group spending on travel and accommodations for lawmakers only if it exceeds $750 — resulting in the disclosure of just four such expenditures last year. “I suspect it’s grossly under-reported,” he said.

He called for requiring multiclient lobbying firms to report how much they spend on each client, rather than simply disclosing their aggregate spending.

Robinson said Michigan needs enhanced public official and lobbyist transparency laws because “it’s an inoculation against public corruption. Michigan citizens deserve better protection,” he said.

GHeinlein@detroitnews.com