Outgoing state officials turn to lobbying under lax Michigan rules
Lansing — As a candidate for governor last year, former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley proposed ending the “revolving door” in state government by prohibiting state officials from working as paid lobbyists for two years.
Two days after leaving office, Calley registered as a lobbyist after landing a new job as president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, where he says lobbying will be only a small part of his larger role at the advocacy and member services organization.
The 41-year-old Calley is among at least seven former state officials and lawmakers who have registered as lobbyists or joined lobbying firms since leaving office at the end of 2018. Many had voted for or co-sponsored "cooling-off period" bills that would have prevented them from jumping straight into lobbying, including former Senate Appropriations Chairman Dave Hildenbrand, a Lowell Republican who joined a multi-client firm and will be paid to influence policy and budget decisions.
The recent moves highlight that Michigan is among a minority of states that do not ban recent legislators, department heads or executive officials from immediately taking paid jobs to lobby former colleagues in the government they just left.
Restrictions in other states and Congress, while occasionally weakened by loopholes, are designed to reduce ethical conflicts. Those include the potential for interest groups to promise future jobs to officials in exchange for preferential treatment while they are still in office.
Ethics laws seek to “ensure that public officials are acting in the public interest,” which helps build trust that is essential in a democracy, said Nicholas Birdsong, a policy associate with the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Revolving door prohibitions, more particularly, exist to prevent public officials — and employees in some cases — from acting against the interests of the citizens they are sworn to serve," he said.
Michigan prohibits lawmakers from resigning to take lobbyist jobs during the term they had been elected to, but its lack of broader restrictions is one of many reasons the state got an "F" on the Center of Public Integrity's 2015 government transparency and accountability report card.
High ranking, highly recruited
Twenty-six states have a one-year cooling-off period before lawmakers can become lobbyists, while 11 have a two-year period. Some states also have temporary lobbying moratoriums for legislative staffers. In Florida, voters recently approved a ballot measure that will ban lawmakers from lobbying for six years, which will be the longest period of its kind when it takes effect.
“Even when there isn’t anything that’s arguably unethical going on, some members of the public have this heightened level of skepticism when it comes to legislator-lobbyist relationships — financial relationships especially,” Birdsong said. “These mandatory cooling-off periods create a barrier.”
Experts say high-ranking officials who leave office are often highly sought after — and well paid — by interest groups because of their personal connections to other government actors. Calley, a Portland Republican, recently got two hours of exclusive face time with new Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who gave him a ride to a joint appearance in Grand Rapids.
“A lot of people would honestly love to have that face-to-face contact with a governor,” said James Strickland, a political science researcher at the University of Michigan who has studied the “revolving door” phenomenon. “For any lobbyist or any advocate, that’s very special time.”
Calley said the carpool discussion briefly touched on the Small Business Association of Michigan's support for a new executive directive Whitmer signed to help businesses in “geographically disadvantaged” regions have a better shot at landing contracts or supply deals with state government.
Mostly, they caught up and discussed the gubernatorial transition, the former lieutenant governor said. Whitmer gave him a ride, he suggested, “as a goodwill gesture, sending a message to people that are not Democrats that she’s serious about reaching across the aisle and forming relationships.”
The only thing he lobbied for, Calley told The Detroit News, was for Whitmer to allow her chief of staff JoAnne Huls to replace outdated wallpaper in her Romney Building office that Calley had previously occupied.
Whitmer's lobbyist insiders
The conservative Michigan Freedom Fund has criticized Whitmer for appointing administration officials who were lobbyists or have lobbyist ties, including Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs Director Orlene Hawks, whose husband owns a multi-client firm that lobbies for marijuana companies regulated by the agency.
Department of Natural Resources Director Daniel Eichinger previously lobbied for the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Liesl Clark had lobbied the Legislature on behalf of her own green energy policy consulting firm.
“These appointments raise serious questions about conflicts of interest and regular Michiganders’ ability to get a fair shake from their state government,” said Freedom Fund President Terri Reid.
Reid previously worked for GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder, who had also hired lobbyists to fill key posts. Two Snyder appointees this year have already gone to work for lobbying firms, while others have taken advocacy positions that may not require registration.
Whitmer signed an executive directive this month seeking to ensure department directors and executive branch staffers place constitutional compliance and "the highest ethical principles above private gain." Any use of confidential information they acquired in state government "for personal gain or benefit" could prompt an investigation.
"We are setting the highest conflict of interest standards that any administration has ever had," Whitmer said, noting her administration includes appointees from the business community, state government and people who worked on "the front lines on behalf of public education, but had to file as lobbyists during that time."
Mark Burton, the governor's chief strategist, was a registered lobbyist through August 2017 and represented the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education.
"I think the most important thing is that we conduct ourselves to high standards, that we are transparent when we do and that we hold people accountable," Whitmer said. "And that's going to happen under my administration."
Appointing lobbyists to government posts can be problematic because "the honest fact is we don't have any kind of financial disclosure law," said Craig Mauger, a watchdog with the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
Michigan is one of two states that does not require lawmakers and state officials to disclose their personal financial interests. Some departments have disclosure policies of their own.
The Whitmer administration is doing a "full review of conflict of interest policies and procedures," said spokeswoman Tiffany Brown, calling it part of an "ongoing effort to set high expectations, strict ethical standards and consistency across the executive branch."
Recent officials can be valuable lobbyists because they have relationships with people who still serve, know how business is conducted behind the scenes and understand how committees are governed, Strickland said. But that knowledge “expires” over time, he said.
Knowing people on the “inside” makes it easier for former legislators to get meetings with government officials or staffers, which “is something necessary for any lobbyist to be effective,” Strickland said.
Hildenbrand last week officially joined Kelly Cawthorne, a lobbying firm with a lengthy list of clients that includes Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, DTE Energy, Ford Motor Co., private prison company The Geo Group, Walmart, American Express, Auto Owners Insurance and school districts, according to state records.
While he is still figuring out his role at the firm, Hildenbrand told The News he plans to use his experience and relationships developed during a 14-year legislative career ended by term limits.
"I've tried to build a reputation of service and integrity, and I'm going to bring that into the private sector in government affairs as well," said Hildenbrand, 45. "I'm not serving voters directly anymore, but certainly what we do does impact a lot of people."
Hildenbrand voted for a 2009 bill that would have prevented lawmakers from becoming lobbyists for two years but recalls the measure as a "political maneuver" by House Democrats that he was "conflicted" over at the time.
“I didn’t think it was necessary, but if I had voted no, people would have asked me, ‘What, are you angling to become a government affairs official or a lobbyist when you get done?’ It was one of those things where you’re criticized no matter which way you vote.”
Calley, whose wife serves in the state House, said 100 to 150 people or organizations contacted him about potential jobs between August and January. He said he initially resisted the discussions but decided to join the small business group "very, very late" in the process. He declined to lay out the specific timeline.
Because he’ll be involved in public policy debates, Calley said it was appropriate for him to register as a lobbyist. But SBAM has a separate full-time lobbyist who will more regularly interact with government officials, he said.
“There’s a big difference between having to register as an executive of an association and a person whose profession is lobbying the Legislature,” Calley said when asked whether he still supports the lobbying moratorium he proposed as a 2018 gubernatorial candidate and co-sponsored as a state lawmaker in 2007.
Hildenbrand said he'd been thinking about going into "government affairs" for the past couple years and had a few organizations approach him in 2018. "I basically told them I'm glad to know that they're interested in me, and obviously it's a space that I want to get into after I'm done," he said, "but I can't have any formal conversations while I'm in the Legislature."
‘So what do you do?’
Former House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, was recently tapped as the new legislative director for AFSCME Council 25 and is still exploring whether he will have to register as what he called "the L-word."
Because he is a dues-paying member of the union, Greimel may be exempt from the legal definition and is asking the Secretary of State's Office for a declaratory ruling.
Greimel co-sponsored cooling-off legislation as recently as 2017 and said he still believes “we need a lot of broader government reforms in Michigan, from additional transparency laws to anti-conflict-of-interest laws.”
A primary purpose of the bill he backed was to ensure lawmakers weren’t promised lobbying gigs while still in office, Greimel said, adding that he did not have any job discussions with AFSCME Council 25 until he was out of office, when union President Lawrence Roehrig personally called him Jan. 4.
Former Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, registered as a lobbyist in his new role as a consultant for the city of Muskegon. He didn't recall co-sponsoring cooling-off legislation in 2007 but said he intentionally waited to discuss job offers until late last year “because I didn’t think it was right to start looking for work before the end of my term.”
While he doesn’t expect to do much direct lobbying of lawmakers, Hansen said doing consulting work for Muskegon's city government is an obvious fit because of the relationship he developed with the city he represented in the Senate.
“I guess I look at it as 14 years of education on the things that I can help with,” Hansen said of his time in the Michigan Legislature. Term limits force some lawmakers out of office at the prime of their career, he said, calling Hildenbrand a “young guy” who has to take care of his family.
“It’s what his background is, so what do you do? Say no, you got to go bag groceries or something?”
Former Rep. Robert Kosowski, D-Westland, was recently hired as a lobbyist for the Michigan Association of Counties, Kosowski said he had no qualms about joining a "great group ... working on a lot of great things for Michigan." Former Sen. David Knezek, a Dearborn Heights Democrat who lost in last year's primary election, got a job this month as new Attorney General Dana Nessel’s lobbyist to the Legislature.
They'll join other former state lawmakers currently registered as lobbyists, including former Sen. Tupac Hunter of Detroit and former Rep. Mike Callton of Nashville, who helped pass major medical marijuana reforms and now works as an industry consultant. Ex-Sen. Virgil Smith, who resigned in 2016 after he was sentenced to jail for shooting his ex-wife's car, also recently registered as a lobbyist for his own consulting firm.
Michigan has historically had a relatively high number of “revolvers” between the Legislature and lobbying corps, along with a relatively high number of interest groups, according a Strickland research paper recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Political Science. The high numbers are related.
At the congressional level, research shows that “the more staffers you have and more former members of Congress you have on your side” as a lobby firm, “the more often you tend to win,” Strickland said.
Cooling off laws can delay but may not ultimately stop former legislators from becoming lobbyists, he said. Strickland's research found that lobbying moratoriums did not stop the revolving door to any "discernible degree" in states that implemented them between 1989 and 2011.