New filing claims Senate Leader Mike Shirkey is at center of Unlock Michigan effort

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A filing Thursday from a Democratic attorney contends that Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey has quietly been at the center of the Unlock Michigan campaign to repeal a law that underpinned Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's initial COVID-19 response.

Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has used Unlock Michigan "to achieve his political goal of repealing that law, a plan executed by his agents under his direction and control and funded with his dark money," wrote Democratic attorney Mark Brewer in asking the Secretary of State's office to reconsider a campaign finance complaint involving the committee.

A spokeswoman for Shirkey didn't immediately provide a response Thursday. Fred Wszolek, spokesman for Unlock Michigan, labeled the arguments "nonsensical."

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey.

Brewer, the former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, submitted a request for reconsideration on behalf of Bob LaBrant, ex-counsel of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

LaBrant has argued the donors of Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, a nonprofit group that provided about $1.9 million in funding for Unlock Michigan through a series of contributions, should have to file its own fundraising disclosures under state law.

"What Bob argues is that if any nonprofit organization wants to support an initiative, they have to throw away any sort of good governance and go absolutely all-in, or just stay out," Wszolek said. "If they provide support in multiple installments, Bob has designed this presumption that they are behaving illegally."

He added, "It's simply nuts to say that this model of giving automatically presumes illegal behavior ..."

Earlier this month, the Bureau of Elections found that the timing of the contributions to Unlock Michigan wasn't enough to require disclosures.

No legal violation had occurred because the evidence failed to show that Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility solicited contributions for "the sole purpose" of giving money to Unlock Michigan, which would trigger disclosures, wrote Adam Fracassi of the state Bureau of Elections. The bureau would need additional evidence from LaBrant to find a violation or take additional investigatory steps, Fracassi found.

Unlock Michigan is the petition effort to repeal the 1945 law that previously allowed Whitmer to declare a state of emergency and keep the declaration in place without input from lawmakers. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional on Oct. 2, but the campaign to put the repeal proposal before the GOP-controlled Legislature has continued.

The committee has gathered more than 500,000 petition signatures. The Board of State Canvassers deadlocked locked on April 22 in deciding whether to certify the signatures and send the proposal to the state Legislature.

In his request for reconsideration Thursday, Brewer argued the state's dismissal letter to LaBrant applied the wrong legal standard by requiring LaBrant to prove with direct evidence that a “potential violation” of campaign finance law occurred. Brewer said LaBrant simply had to prove there “may be reason to believe” that a violation occurred, which they contend they have achieved.

Unlock Michigan was funded with dark money tied to Shirkey and managed by individuals connected to the Senate leader, Brewer wrote in his request.

"For all practical purposes" Unlock Michigan, Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility and Michigan! My Michigan!, another fundraising account that supported Unlock Michigan, "are a single organization funded by Shirkey and controlled by Shirkey through his agents," Brewer wrote.

Unlock Michigan has reported raising about $3 million overall. About $1.9 million of the money came from the Lansing-based nonprofit called Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, which doesn't disclose the sources of its funding.

According to corporate filings, the group's board features Republican political consultants who also work for the firm Lambert & Co., which has a downtown Lansing office and works with the Senate Republican Campaign Committee.

LaBrant himself is a former director of Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility.

In an affidavit filed Thursday, political consultant Jeff Timmer said he helped found Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility and used it to benefit former Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville by supporting GOP candidates in 2010, the election year before Richardville became the top lawmaker in the Senate.

"In other words, MCFR has long engaged in a pattern of activity identical to that alleged by LaBrant: raising dark money in order to donate/contribute/transfer them to another entity to advance the goals of the Senate GOP majority leader," Brewer wrote.

Ellen Kletzka of Lambert & Co. is listed as the record keeper for the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and the treasurer for Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, which spent more than $1 million on TV ads in state Senate races in 2018.

But, in an affidavit that was filed with the Secretary of State's office and obtained by The Detroit News, Heather Lombardini, president of Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, said to the best of her knowledge, the nonprofit "has not solicited or received contributions" to redirect to Unlock Michigan.

"There is no evidence that respondent solicited or received contributions for the purpose of making an expenditure to Unlock Michigan," wrote Brian Shekell and Andrew Richner, attorneys for Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, in a past filing. "The allegations in the complaint are without factual support and should result in its dismissal."

Bob LaBrant

Another nonprofit, Michigan! My Michigan!, has given $550,000 to the Unlock Michigan campaign. Shirkey has previously raised money for the nonprofit, according to a fundraising notice posted by the Senate Republican Campaign Committee.

Also, when the Michigan Association of Realtors PAC gave $1,000 to Michigan! My Michigan! in 2019, the PAC wrote "Shirkey" on the expenditure. While Michigan! My Michigan! doesn't have to report its contributors, sometimes contributors themselves disclose their donations.

Unlock Michigan, Michigan! My Michigan! and Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility are "overlapping, interlocking organizations," Brewer wrote.

Shirkey has not publicly detailed his relationship with Michigan! My Michigan!