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Lansing — A nonprofit tied to the then-leader of the Michigan Senate received $500,000 from a single unidentified donor in 2018, according to a tax filing obtained by The Detroit News.

Relatives and staffers of former Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, a Grand Haven Republican who led the Senate from 2015 through 2018, have served as officers for the West Michigan Community Preservation Fund. The fund reported raising $541,612 in 2018 with $500,000 coming from one donor, according to its 2018 filing.

Transparency advocates say the situation reveals a path for companies and individuals to try to influence lawmakers in secret. Meekhof says the group followed Internal Revenue Service policies and the money went to the nonprofit, not his campaign or himself.

“If they are concerned, they should appeal to the IRS to change the rules," Meekhof said this week of critics in a phone interview.

Meekhof, who left the Senate because of term limits at the end of 2018 and is now working as a consultant, declined to voluntarily identify who gave $500,000 to the nonprofit.

"The form is all I have to say about it," Meekhof said.

The money could have come from an individual, a corporation or another nonprofit.

Under federal policies, nonprofit organizations, like West Michigan Community Preservation Fund, must make available to the public upon request their annual federal tax filings. The filings, which often become available about a year after the period they cover, include a schedule of donors who gave at least $5,000 in a single year. The nonprofits have to release the schedule but don't have to release the names of the donors.

That's unlike the disclosed contributors to campaigns and political action committees that are expressly involved in advocating for candidates, said Michael Beckel, research director for Issue One, a national political reform group.

West Michigan Community Preservation Fund's mission includes administering funds "for the health, safety and welfare of citizens," according to its tax filing. It has spent money on event sponsorships, consulting and travel, the 2018 filing says.

"Social welfare" organizations, like the fund, can have a wide array of focuses and many aren't connected to public officeholders, Beckel said. When a nonprofit is closely tied to a politician, however, contributors may be using their money to gain access and influence, he noted.

“This is a gap in the disclosure laws that we have in this country," Beckel said. "Most nonprofits aren’t closely associated with politicians so the rules that are in place are trying to govern the widest breadth of nonprofits as possible."

The West Michigan Community Preservation Fund reported raising $541,612 in 2018. Of that, $500,000 came from a single donor, $10,000 came from another donor and three other donors each gave $5,000, according to the filing.

The total of $541,612 in revenue was the most the nonprofit ever raised, and the $500,000 contribution was its largest individual contribution, according to tax records. The nonprofit formed in 2009.

State Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, a transparency advocate, questioned what someone potentially could have gained by spending the large sum of $500,000. In comparison, Meekhof's candidate committee reported $99,950 in contributions from after the 2014 election until it dissolved on Dec. 18, 2018.

Moss also noted that Meekhof held up legislation to subject Michigan's Legislature to an open records law while he was leader. Michigan is one of two states that don't subject the Governor's Office and the Legislature to such a law.

"If we want a government that's responsive to the people that we serve, the people we serve need to know who's funding their elected officials, their campaigns and other endeavors," Moss said.

From 2009 through 2013, the West Michigan Community Preservation Fund reported raising less than $50,000 each year. For 2014 — Meekhof's final year as Senate majority floor leader — and for 2015, 2016 and 2017 — his first three years as Senate leader — its highest fundraising total was $276,683 in 2015, according to filings.

Meekhof's wife, Barb Meekhof, was listed as the nonprofit's treasurer in 2010, according to a business filing with the state. Adrian Meekhof, Meekhof's son, is listed as the organization's "principal officer" on the 2018 filing. The group reported having $500,040 still available at the end of 2018 as Meekhof left office.

A large number of Michigan officeholders have used nonprofit organizations to raise money to support their political efforts over the years. Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder used the New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify Fund, commonly known as the NERD Fund, to raise money for certain government expenses from contributors whose names weren't disclosed. The group initially paid the salary of a top Snyder aide before Snyder shut it down amid criticism.

A new nonprofit called Road to Michigan's Future formed in January and began airing TV ads promoting Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's plan to issue $3.5 billion in bonds to improve state highways. Mark Fisk, a spokesman for the organization, has declined to say whether it will disclose its funders.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

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