Michigan GOP, Weiser agree to pay $200,000 to resolve campaign finance probe

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

 Lansing — The Michigan Republican Party has agreed to pay $200,000 to resolve a campaign finance complaint that claimed Chairman Ron Weiser used party funds to lure a secretary of state candidate out of a race in 2018.

The allegations came to light in February when then-Chairwoman Laura Cox publicly accused Weiser of orchestrating a "secret deal" with Stan Grot of Macomb County to get Grot to drop out of the party's nomination race for secretary of state. The deal involved $200,000 in payments from the party's undisclosed administrative account to Grot, said Cox, who lost to Weiser in her reelection bid days after she made the claims against him.

Ron Weiser

Weiser, a businessman, GOP donor and University of Michigan regent, has denied any wrongdoing, labeling Cox's assertions "baseless." However, the former chairwoman sent a letter to the Michigan Bureau of Elections on behalf of the state party, self-reporting a "possible campaign finance violation" before she left her position, setting off an investigation by Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office.

The probe officially ended this week with the conciliation agreement, under which the Secretary of State's office is barred from further action regarding the matter but the party must pay $200,000. Weiser said he would personally contribute the $200,000 amount to the party.

According to the agreement released Friday, the Secretary of State's office found "there may be reason to believe" the $200,000 in payments to Grot violated campaign finance law because they were meant to influence the race for secretary of state. The law would require public disclosure of expenditures directly to benefit candidate's campaign.

"The Bureau of Elections determined there was reason to believe the Michigan Republican Party violated the campaign finance act and proceeded to seek a conciliation agreement as required by law," said Tracy Wimmer, Benson's spokeswoman. "In conciliation agreements, it is commonplace for the subject of the investigation to claim that there was no wrongdoing.

"In this case, the Republican Party agreed to pay a fine equal to the amount of money involved in the violation to resolve the complaint."

At 4 p.m. Friday, before the Fourth of July weekend, the Michigan Republican Party released a statement from Weiser, first acknowledging the agreement had been reached with Benson's office to resolve the matter. Weiser argued the party would have won in court had it pursued the matter. Republicans had argued the payments were not meant to influence the secretary of state race and didn't have to be disclosed.

"In the end, the litigation costs to the party would’ve amounted to more than the payment demanded by the secretary of state," Weiser said. "Therefore, I decided to personally contribute the conciliation amount to the party to close this unfortunate chapter and continue our focus where it needs to be — the 2022 election."

The chairman said he was "glad to put an end to the sad and reckless actions by Laura Cox that needlessly thrust the Michigan Republican Party into a politicized investigation designed to hurt Republicans in 2022 and thwart election reform efforts."

He added, "The secretary of state sought a disproportionate conciliation payment given the baseless accusations and lack of standing for such an investigation. When compared to payments for much more egregious accusations, Gretchen Whitmer paid a much smaller penalty. I guess that’s what political allies do for each other."

Weiser was apparently referring to a 2019 agreement between Benson's office and a group that ran ads benefiting Whitmer in her campaign for governor.

Build a Better Michigan spent more than $2.4 million and aired pro-Whitmer television ads that it described as a form of "issue advocacy," meaning they were intended not to endorse a candidate and thus fall outside of campaign finance regulations. But some of the ads violated the law by identifying Whitmer as a “candidate for governor,” Benson determined.

Build a Better Michigan paid a $37,500 settlement, but many Republicans felt the penalty should have been tougher.

Ahead of the party's Aug. 25, 2018, convention, Grot, a longtime party activist from Shelby Township, abruptly withdrew from the secretary of state race on Aug. 17, 2018. Grot cited “family obligations, timing and the overall political atmosphere” as influencing his decision. He had been competing for the GOP nomination with Grosse Pointe Farms businesswoman Mary Treder Lang, who ended up being the lone Republican female nominee for governor, attorney general or secretary of state.

Cox said after Grot withdrew, he was paid $200,000 between Aug. 20, 2018, and Feb. 12, 2019, from the party's administrative account, a fund that can receive money from corporations and doesn't have to publicly disclose its contributions or spending.

Among the $200,000 paid to Grot were six $10,000 payments and a $140,000 payment that was paid two weeks before Cox became chairwoman in February 2019, according to her letter to activists. Weiser didn't seek reelection as chairman in 2019.

"The $140,000 was so substantial that the party’s CFO had to borrow from the party’s line of credit," Cox wrote in a February letter.

Some Republican officials who served under Weiser have denied anything improper happened. Grot had been tapped to help with delegate recruitment, organize events and help with legislative races in Macomb County, said Colleen Pero, who was the party's chief of staff.

According to documents released as part of the secretary of state's probe, Grot and Weiser signed a deal on July 3, 2018, in which Grot agreed to provide services to the party, including organizing events and giving speeches, in exchange for $230,000. The arrangement was contingent upon Grot withdrawing from the secretary of state race no later than Aug. 17, 2018.

"I will not endorse in the Michigan secretary of state race until after the August 25, 2018, state convention or such time as there is only one candidate for this position. However, once the nominee is known, I fully endorse that person," read the agreement between Grot and Weiser.

In a letter to the Michigan GOP's counsel, Charles Spies, Melissa Malerman, an official with the Michigan Bureau of Elections, said the agreement meant the expenditures to Grot should have been disclosed.

The payments wouldn't have happened if Grot continued to be a candidate for secretary of state, she noted. To determine a potential resolution, Malerman asked for the Michigan Republican Party to disclose information about donors to its secret administrative account. In Michigan, businesses are prohibited from giving corporate funds to candidates.

But Spies didn't agree with the legal theory.

"With due respect, the Secretary’s theory that a $200,000 contract with an individual somehow operates to advocate against that same individual’s campaign is nonsensical," Spies wrote.

Without a court order, the party would not release information on donors to its administrative account, Spies wrote the Bureau of Elections on May 17.

cmauger@detroitnews.com