Michigan GOP Senate hopeful facing election complaint

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Republican senatorial hopefuls Sandy Pensler, left, and John James settle in on the set of WKAR's Off The Record before a debate moderated by host Tim Skubick.

The campaign of a Republican U.S. Senate hopeful has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against his primary rival, alleging he's illegally coordinating with an outside group in violation of federal rules.

The complaint is related to Farmington Hills businessman John James' campaign and an independent group called Outsider PAC, which use a common vendor named Grand River Strategies, according to FEC filings.

The complaint, submitted by the campaign treasurer for Grosse Pointe financier Sandy Pensler, highlights two commercials — one by the James campaign and another by the Outsider PAC — using “identical" footage of Pensler. 

In the footage, Pensler says of President Donald Trump that he does "not like his personal style," and "I can't speak at fourth-grade level like he does."

The complaint claims the footage was shot by the James campaign and shared with Outsider PAC, and that the ads use “nearly identical" language and graphics.

The Pensler campaign alleges this violates FEC regulations that bar an independent expenditure committee from republishing campaign materials prepared by a candidate, constituting a prohibited in-kind contribution to the candidate’s campaign.

But James' campaign says the footage is from the Bloomfield Township public television's coverage of a forum hosted by the Birmingham Republican Women's Club. That footage is posted publicly on the video website Vimeo.

“To paraphrase Kid Rock’s description of Sandy Pensler’s attacks, this complaint is total BS," said Charlie Spies, counsel for James' campaign. 

"The footage of Pensler attacking President Trump is publicly posted on a TV station website for anyone to see or use. The James campaign has fully complied with FEC rules, just as John complied with rules in his service defending our country.” 

Outsider PAC was created in May as a so-called super political action committee to make independent expenditures and has spent $210,000 for media buys and production for the GOP primary to date, according to FEC records. 

The group issued a news release Monday saying it will "work to ensure a conservative is nominated for Senate in the GOP primary," while praising James and saying Pensler "cannot be trusted by conservatives." 

The spokesman for Outsider PAC, Jamie Roe, is a co-founder of Grand River Strategies, along with Stu Sandler. Their Lansing firm has done consulting work for James' campaign, according to FEC disclosures. 

This is at least the second FEC complaint of the GOP Senate primary in Michigan. 

Pensler faced a complaint in April alleging he used a non-federal committee or funds to circulate and submit petitions for his federal campaign in violation of the law.

The complaint was filed by Matthew Frendewey, who does consulting work for the National Security and Opportunity Fund, a 501(c)4 "social welfare" organization that advocates for a Senate candidate in Michigan with military and business experience. James is an Iraq veteran and businessman.

At the time, the Pensler campaign said the complaint was frivolous, and that it's normal and legal for contractors in the field to circulate petitions for both state and federal campaigns at the same time.