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Mich. GOP chair helps raise cash to defend Greitens

Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser is using his name to help raise defense money for embattled Missouri GOP Gov. Eric Greitens, who is fighting allegations he attempted to blackmail a woman with whom he had an affair by threatening to release a partially nude photo of her.

Greitens, who has admitted the extramarital affair but denied any criminal wrongdoing, was indicted last month by a grand jury on a felony invasion of privacy charge. He has resisted calls to resign amid the ongoing probe.

Internal Revenue Service records show Weiser, who said he served as national finance chairman on Greiten’s 2016 campaign, is a founding member of a new “EGR Defense Fund” established this month in Missouri to help the governor pay his legal bills.

Weiser told The Detroit News he is not “actively involved” in the fund, but local organizers asked him to put his name on the paperwork to help facilitate national fundraising efforts.

“And I agreed,” Wesier said. “I helped him when he ran for governor because I felt he would be an excellent public servant, and I still believe him to be an excellent public servant.”

The defense fund was organized March 2 under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code, which is typically used by political organizations attempting to influence an issue, policy appointment or election. Other fund officials named in the IRS filing are all based in Missouri.

The purpose of the fund is “to raise/spend funds to defray legal expenses and other activities for which a Missouri nonprofit corporation may be formed,” according to the IRS document.

A separate Missouri Legal Expense Fund was set up last week by a conservative activist with the stated purpose of raising money or paying for legal expenses “incurred by current or former employees” in Greitens’ executive office.

Greitens, who recently stepped down from a leadership post with the national Republican Governors Association, is a former Navy SEAL who was seen as a rising party star last fall when Weiser invited him to speak at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference.

The first-term governor has admitted to being unfaithful to his wife before he won election but has denied any criminal activity and insisted that the relationship with his former hairdresser was consensual.

“I believe him,” said Weiser, telling The News he is considering a personal contribution to Greiten’s legal defense. Missouri records show the Ann Arbor real estate mogul donated $50,000 to his successful 2016 campaign.

Weiser said he has read court transcripts in the Greitens case and questioned the investigation by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, a former Democratic lawmaker.

“You’ve got a Dem prosecutor going after a Republican governor,” he said, suggesting a lack of evidence in the case. “So I may help him because he doesn’t have any resources to fight this because it’s expensive.”

Legal defense funds are a new development in Missouri politics, according to The Kansas City Star.

The newspaper reported Tuesday that the funds, used to support a governor who has been criticized for secrecy and anonymous campaign donations, have opened Greitens and his staff to “renewed questions about donor influence, conflicts of interest and government transparency.”

Michigan has an established procedure for lawmakers to set up legal defense funds, said Craig Mauger of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, who added that he had not personally seen a 527 political account used for that purpose.

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon criticized Weiser for helping launch the Missouri fund.

“If you’re known by the company you keep, the fact that Ron Weiser is bending over backward to defend an out-of-state politician under grand jury indictment says everything working folks should know about the priorities of the Michigan Republican Party,” Dillon said.

“Michigan Republicans will do or say anything to protect their own special interests and establishment politicians while leaving the everyday interests of Michigan families further and further behind.”

The reaction to Greitens’ indictment has not been entirely partisan. Some Republican lawmakers in Missouri have called on him to step down.

But Weiser, who has history with Greitens, said he believes the governor will ultimately be exonerated. It remains to be seen whether his admitted affair will hurt his political future.

“I talked to his wife also, because I know he and his wife, and she said it’s a thing of the past, that she knew about it three years ago when it happened,” Weiser said. “So I’m not sure where this all came from.”

The indictment, handed down by a grand jury after an investigation launched by Gardner, states that on March 21, 2015, Greitens photographed a woman identified only by her initials “in a state of full or partial nudity” without her knowledge or consent.

Greitens’ attorney quickly filed a motion to dismiss the case, which alleges the governor “transmitted the image contained in the photograph in a manner that allowed access to that image via a computer.”

Michigan established legal defense funds under a 2008 law designed to regulate and require reporting for elected officials who raise money to defend themselves in civil or criminal cases related to actions arising directly out of their governmental duties, according to the Bureau of Elections.

Critics last year called on Michigan GOP Gov. Rick Snyder to establish a legal defense fund to pay for attorneys representing him in cases related to the Flint water contamination crisis. His office has defended Snyder’s use of taxpayer-funded attorneys as appropriate given his official role.

State records show former state Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, set up a legal defense fund last year but did not use it to raise any money after obtaining a public defender. Johnson resigned this month after reaching a plea deal in his “ghost employee” corruption case.

Former state Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat, tea party Republicans from Lapeer and Plainwell, respectively, set up legal defense funds in 2015 while denying allegations they misused taxpayer resources to cover up their extramarital affair.

Courser reported $6,295 in contributions – all from himself -- before closing the fund in early 2016. Gamrat reported a single $250 contribution from her campaign committee, which she used to pay an attorney who represented her in legislative hearings.

Courser resigned from office in September 2015 before he could be ousted by the Legislature. The state House expelled Gamrat.

The Associated Press contributed