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Lansing — Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard was among a group of Republican lawmakers who rubbed elbows with lending lobbyists last year on a free trip to London that may have contributed to the recent resignation of a top Ohio official.

But Leonard was not personally lobbied during the four-day trip, which was paid for by the GOPAC political training organization and billed as an educational excursion, the speaker’s spokesman said Friday.

“He met everybody on the trip, but he did not talk business with them either before, during or after the trip,” said Gideon D’Assandro. “He doesn’t personally know any of the lobbyists from the payday lending companies.”

Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberg announced his resignation Tuesday amid a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe and reports of questionable lobbyist relationships and extensive travel, including trips to England, France and Israel.

No one from the FBI or other law enforcement agencies have contacted Leonard about the London trip, according to the Michigan speaker’s office, and the free travel does not appear to violate state lobbying or disclosure rules.

The late August trip was paid for by the GOPAC Education Fund, a 501(c)4 nonprofit. Legislative leaders from around the United States met with British government officials, visited Parliament, discussed trade opportunities and studied former British prime ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, D’Assandro said.

The trip included an opportunity for lobbyists to mingle with lawmakers, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Steve Dimon of Ohio and Leslie Gaines of South Carolina, two lobbyists for title lender LoanMax, are pictured in Facebook photos of the trip.

Gaines posted one photo that showed Leonard and other lawmakers posing for the camera.

Leonard “must’ve met” the lobbyists, D’Assandro acknowledged, “but he did not talk business.” Asked if the speaker talked to any other lobbyists in London, D’Assandro reiterated that Leonard “was not lobbied on the trip.”

GOPAC is focused on “educating and electing a new generation of Republican leaders,” according to its website. The conservative group recently named Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Casco Township, as one of its “emerging leaders” for 2018.

Leonard, who is seeking the GOP nomination for Michigan attorney general, sits on GOPAC’s legislative advisory board and is a “a valued member,” Executive Director Jessica Curtis said in a Friday email. She confirmed Leonard participated in the Institute for Leadership Development program in London.

Six U.S. legislative leaders were invited to hear talks from members of Parliament as well as U.S.-British trade specialists and experts on deceased British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Curtis said.

When asked how many lobbyists were on the trip and what their role in the educational event was, Curtis didn’t give a direct response. She said, “The names of the contributors to the GOPAC Education Fund are not publicly reported, which is in accordance with the IRS regulations for 501(c)4 organizations.”

Title and payday lenders have been fighting potential new regulations in Ohio, according to the Enquirer. Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, also on the trip, has reportedly sponsored measures to loosen payday and title loan regulation in that state.

The Michigan House is not considering any significant title or payday lending legislation, and Leonard “has not actually worked on payday lending issues this term,” D’Assandro said.

But a three-bill state Senate package introduced last year would rewrite payday lending regulations in Michigan. The Dykema firm in Lansing is lobbying for the package on behalf of a lending company called Axcess Financial. A second lender, Advance America, has lobbied in the House, but no bills this year have materialized in the lower chamber.

The Loan Max lobbyists, Dimon and Gaines, are not registered in Michigan, but parent company Select Management Resources is represented by the multi-client Governmental Consultant Services Inc. The Detroit News reported that Select Management Resources pushed a controversial auto-title lending bill in late 2014, but it’s not clear whether the company is currently advocating for any legislation in Michigan.

Michigan does not require groups such as GOPAC that do not directly lobby lawmakers to disclose free trips they provide, said Craig Mauger, a watchdog with the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

“The lobbying law covers lobbying, so if (Leonard) says he wasn’t lobbied and the group says it was an educational trip, it doesn’t fall under lobbying rules, which means he could take that trip and not disclose it anywhere,” Mauger said.

Michigan lawmakers “often” take unreported paid trips, Mauger said, noting that lobbyists did not report a single expense for the entire second half of 2017.

Michigan law requires lobbyists to disclose lawmaker travel expenses only if the bill tops $800 — the threshold was $775 in 2017 but is adjusted annually for inflation. In Ohio, lobbyists must report travel or any other expense topping $25.

The GOPAC Education Fund is not required to disclose donors, but GOPAC also operates a separate political organization that is required to file disclosure reports as it claims nonprofit status under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code.

Reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service show the GOPAC 527 received more than $930,000 in contributions from individuals and corporations during the second half of 2017, including an $80,000 contribution from Select Management Resources, the Loan Max parent company. From Michigan, Amerisure Insurance of Farmington Hills and Jackson National of Lansing each gave $10,000.

“The idea that lawmakers can accept free travel from groups that are… trying to influence politics in some way and never have to disclose that to the public should be concerning to people,” Mauger said. “There are so many get-arounds in our lobbyist disclosure rules that it’s sometimes amazing that anything gets reported.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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