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Ex-Chamber attorney challenges mystery funding of campaign to limit Whitmer's power

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — An attorney who spent decades advising the Michigan Chamber of Commerce is challenging a nonprofit's use of money from undisclosed sources to back the campaign to limit Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency powers.

Bob LaBrant, who helped write some of Michigan's campaign finance laws and penned a book entitled, "PAC Man: A Memoir," said the Department of State received his complaint Monday.

In it, he arguesthe nonprofit Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, a group tied to Republican consultants, should have to file its own fundraising disclosures after making a series of contributions to the Unlock Michigan petition drive. Unlock Michigan is the effort to repeal a 1945 Michigan law that allows a governor to declare a state of emergency and keep the declaration in place without the Legislature's input.

LaBrant

By making multiple contributions to the campaign, totaling $660,200, Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility became its own ballot proposal committee that should have to file reports with Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, LaBrant argued.

"The first contribution of $10,000 by Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility to Unlock Michigan on June 9, 2020, by itself does not carry the presumption that Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility was acting as a ballot question committee," LaBrant wrote in his complaint, which was dated Thursday.

"However, when Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility made a $150,000 contribution to Unlock Michigan on June 18, 2020, that was the second contribution by Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility to Unlock Michigan giving way to the presumption that it was now acting as a ballot question committee."

Fred Wszolek, spokesman for Unlock Michigan, labeled LaBrant's argument "nonsensical."

"By this logic, everyone who contributes to a ballot question committee becomes a committee, which is clearly not the intention of the law," Wszolek said.

He added, "LaBrant's position seems to be that he simply presumes that somebody is doing something wrong, which they could rebut, but probably not."

State law says a corporation, like Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, can give to ballot proposal committees without having to file its own reports "unless the person solicits or receives contributions for the purpose of making an expenditure" to a ballot committee.

A ballot committee called Unlock Michigan that wants to repeal a state law that gives the governor emergency powers formed on June 1, 2020.

In an interview, LaBrant said the fact that the nonprofit made five contributions over a period of weeks created "a presumption" that it was raising money from other donors to send to Unlock Michigan.

"They can rebut the presumption," LaBrant said of the nonprofit. "But how are they going to rebut the presumption?"

An official with Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nonprofits with mystery donors have long been a source of cash for ballot proposals in Michigan.

LaBrant, 73, said he's previously survived a heart attack and cancer and argues the Democratic governor has done a pretty good job of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The longtime elections attorney said repealing the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act would be "shortsighted" and said the "last thing we need to be doing is tying the governor's hands."

Supporters of the Unlock Michigan effort have said Whitmer shouldn't be able to declare an emergency, a move that gives the governor unilateral powers to take actions, such as issuing a stay-at-home order, and keep the declaration in place for long periods of time without elected lawmakers having a say.

In his campaign finance complaint, LaBrant cited a previous inquiry involving a nonprofit called Michigan Community Education Fund, which helped finance a political action committee in the 2013 race for Detroit mayor.

Benson, a Democrat, should find that Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, like the Michigan Community Education Fund, has to file campaign finance reports, disclosing "contributors as well as the expenditures it has made," LaBrant said.

Unlock Michigan needs to collect more than 340,000 signatures to initiate the repeal, which Whitmer couldn't veto if the GOP-controlled Legislature approved.

About 86% of the money the group raised through July 20 came from Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, which spent about $1.1 million backing GOP Michigan Senate candidates in 2018, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

cmauger@detroitnews.com