Michigan House Democrats' public relations got boost from corporate donors

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan House Democrats used $45,000 in contributions from corporations, including a tobacco company and a hazardous waste handler, to finance their public relations operation, according to a new disclosure.

The arrangement breaks with normal practice in the state Capitol, where there are traditionally divisions between communications about policy and legislating that are handled by taxpayer-funded staff and communications focused on campaigns that are handled by campaign-funded staff.

By tapping a consulting firm through a political account that raises outside money, House Democrats could potentially avoid those normal divisions, said Simon Schuster, executive director of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which tracks the role of money in state politics.

"It allows our elected officials to blend communications about policy and politics in ways that are beyond the norm," Schuster said.

State Rep. Donna Lasinski

From January through the beginning of April, the East Lansing-based firm Byrum & Fisk Advocacy Communications handled press releases and media events on behalf of state House Democrats and Minority Leader Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township. But It had been unclear how the caucus was funding the contract.

On Wednesday, a filing with the Internal Revenue Service showed that an account tied to the House Democrats called the Jobs & Opportunities Fund had paid Byrum & Fisk a total of $45,000 over January, February and March. The last payment was March 3, according to the disclosure.

Lasinski announced the hiring of a press secretary, Andrea Brown-Harrison, and a deputy communications director, Zach Crim, on April 23.

"As Democratic leader, effective communications has been a top priority for me from day one," Lasinski said in a statement Thursday. "We chose to work with Byrum & Fisk Communications given its proven track record of strategic communications and effective messaging.

"For decades, both Republican and Democratic caucuses have engaged consultants to enhance their efforts with outside expertise. We have also hired several key caucus communications positions so we can break through the clutter and communicate our message and vision to the people of Michigan."

The Jobs & Opportunities Fund formed in October 2020. Since then, the account has reported raising $74,500 from eight donors. Among them were the North Carolina-based tobacco company Reynolds American, the Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, which each gave $10,000. AT&T gave $17,000, Falcon Trucking Co. contributed $10,000, Michigan Paving & Materials Co. gave $10,000, the Detroit Salt Co. donated $5,000, and U.S. Ecology Holdings, a hazardous waste management company, contributed $2,500.

The account's only expenses over the first six months of 2021 were to Byrum & Fisk. In 2020, it also paid $9,050 for a fundraiser and $5,000 for campaign finance compliance services, according to a disclosure.

In Michigan, businesses cannot give corporate funds directly to candidates or caucuses. But they can give to groups that fall outside of campaign finance regulations because the groups don't expressly endorse candidates in elections, like the administrative accounts.

Schuster of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network said it was somewhat positive the Jobs & Opportunities Fund had disclosed its donors publicly through the IRS. Some organizations that have been tied to Michigan officeholders — such as former Gov. Rick Snyder's New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify Fund, also known as the NERD Fund, which helped his administration — never disclosed the sources of its money.

The Michigan Democratic Party's platform supports legislation to "prevent corporate and foreign money from corrupting the integrity of the political process."