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Meijer family accused of ties to 'straw donor' scheme; paperwork issue blamed

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

A nonpartisan watchdog is asking federal officials to investigate a Grand Rapids entity it claims was created to funnel money to a Republican political group working to help elect GOP candidate Peter Meijer to Congress.

The Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint Friday with the Federal Election Commission saying the newly created company called Montcalm LLC appears to be a shell corporation used as part of a "straw donor" arrangement to hide the true donor and evade contribution limits. 

A spokesman for Meijer's campaign said Friday that "this has nothing to do with Peter Meijer." 

Separately, a spokesman for the Meijer family attributed the problem to a paperwork issue that's since been corrected. 

Republican Peter Meijer is running for Congress in Michigan's 3rd District

A "straw" donor is one who uses another's name to make political contributions in an effort to evade reporting requirements — which is illegal under federal campaign finance law.

Government records show Montcalm was formed in late September and gave $150,000 to the GOP-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund two weeks later.

The address that Montcalm used for the donation is the same Grand Rapids address for the Meijer Family Foundation at 80 Ottawa Ave., Suite 101. Peter Meijer's uncle, Douglas Meijer — chairman of the Meijer grocery empire — listed the same address when he made contributions to Democratic Party groups in March, according to federal disclosure reports.

The day after Montcalm's donation, the Congressional Leadership Fund — which is a super political action committee endorsed by House GOP leadership — spent additional money on ads in the Grand Rapids market against Peter Meijer's Democratic opponent, Hillary Scholten, according to federal filings.

Meijer and Scholten are in a tight race for the 3rd Congressional District seat held by retiring U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a Libertarian, representing the Grand Rapids area.

“Voters have a right to know who is trying to influence their vote. The evidence indicates that this LLC was used to unlawfully keep voters in the dark about the true source of a $150,000 super PAC contribution,” said Brendan Fischer, senior director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center.

Fischer said the "serious" violation alleged is similar to the one that led to the arrest of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, the associates of President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

In both instances, the facts alleged involved a limited liability company making a six-figure donation to a super PAC just weeks after being created, he said.

Mark E. Rizik, the registered agent for Montcalm, did not respond Friday to requests for comment. Rizik is also the registered agent for the Meijer Family Office LLC, according to state records. 

After the complaint was filed Friday, the Congressional Leadership Fund amended its FEC filing to say the $150,000 contribution came from Hendrik G. Meijer, Peter's father, who is identified as the owner and sole member of Montcalm LCC.

The amendment also revised the address for the Montcalm/Meijer donation to 45 Ottawa Ave., S.W., Suite 1000, which is the address for Rizik's law firm, Miller Johnson Snell & Cummiskey.

A representative for the Meijer family, John Truscott, said it was a paperwork issue by the Congressional Leadership Fund, and they fixed it "immediately."

"We’re confident everything on our end has been handled appropriately and are pleased the issue has been corrected," Truscott said. 

CLF spokesman Calvin Moore said the group had received and reported a contribution and "as soon as we got additional written information from the donor, we amended our report as such.”

“This is much to do about nothing and is just about opponents trying to score cheap political points," Moore said. 

Truscott said that CLF always had Hank Meijer’s information to put in the report but made a mistake and didn’t do it.

“It was a CLF staff error and the person responsible for filing admitted it to (Meijer’s) attorney,” he said.

Truscott noted that the law requires the Congressional Leadership Fund to report all donors.

"There was never any attempt to not be completely transparent. An LLC like this is a legitimate tool to use to make a donation. It acts the same as a personal account," Truscott said. 

"The family is reluctant to use personal checks with personal information like a home address on them." 

Fischer said CLF’s amendment shows that the allegations in his complaint were correct.

“The newly created 'Montcalm LLC’ was not the true source of the $150,000 super PAC contribution. This is a serious violation, so it looks like the donor acted quickly after getting caught,” Fischer said. 

“The law requires that big donors be publicly reported — and the public has a right to know if a billionaire is bankrolling a super PAC supporting his son's run for office. It shouldn't take a legal complaint for a super PAC donor to disclose what should have been made public in the first place.”

Scholten, Meijer's opponent, called the allegations “appalling.”

“For too long, the rich and well-connected in West Michigan have used their wealth to rig the system in their favor at the expense of everyday families,” she said. “Voters here deserve a thorough and fair investigation by the FEC.”

The FEC complaint notes that Montcalm LLC lacks a business imprint or an online presence such as a website, social media account or business record. 

"There is no public record of Montcalm LLC conducting any activities other than making a political contribution," the complaint states. 

Without that record, the Campaign Legal Center suggests the entity would not have had sufficient income from assets, earnings or business revenue or investments to cover the $150,000 contribution "without an infusion of funds provided to it for that purpose."

The complaint alleged that whoever created, operated or contributed to Montcalm violated the law by making the contribution to CLF but attributing the source to Montcalm.

The complaint also asks the FEC to probe whether Montcalm failed to register as a political committee as required by federal law. 

mburke@detroitnews.com