Watchdog group files campaign finance complaint against Michigan lawmakers

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A left-leaning watchdog group has filed a campaign finance complaint against two Republican lawmakers over access to software that the group claimed was available for 2020 campaigns and should have been reported as a campaign contribution. 

The Center for Media and Democracy filed the complaint Wednesday with Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson against GOP Reps. Matt Hall of Marshall and Jim Lilly of Macatawa. 

Michigan State Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall.

Hall and Lilly, who are the public sector state chairs for the American Legislative Exchange Council, are alleged to have violated Michigan’s campaign finance laws when the council provided them with a software system that should have been reported as an in-kind contribution, the complaint said. 

The software from ALEC, a conservative legislative and policy organization, is billed as a tool to assist with constituent services but amounts to a voter contact platform that is worth thousands of dollars and linked to the Republican National Committee’s voter database, the complaint said. 

Rep. Jim Lilly, R-Holland takes his oath of office as the Michigan House of Representatives convenes to start the new year in the Capitol in Lansing on January 11, 2017.

The Center for Media and Democracy has also filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service over the alleged political activity by ALEC, which is a nonprofit. It’s filed similar complaints against lawmakers with access to ALEC CARE in 14 other states. 

“ALEC CARE is a brazen scheme to help ALEC’s overwhelmingly Republican members win reelection,” said Arn Pearson, executive director for the Center for Media and Democracy.

Lilly said Wednesday that the complaint was baseless. While access to the software may be available, he said was unaware of any Michigan lawmaker using it. 

“It’s completely without merit,” Lilly said. “I’ve never even utilized the software.”

Hall said the complaint amounted to a partisan attack against a program that has legitimate uses and is used strictly for official constituent services.

“I’ve used this software to help my constituents in my official office, and it's been cleared by the nonpartisan House Business Office for use," Hall said. "There’s really nothing unusual about that.”

ALEC did not immediately return a message seeking comment. 

The complaint alleges the use of the software amounts to a contribution between $2,376 and $3,000. Not only was the use of the software not recorded in campaign finance records, the complaint said, it also violates a Michigan law that prohibits nonprofits from engaging in political activity or making political contributions. 

The complaint asked Benson to obtain a full list of ALEC members in Michigan who received the software, determine whether it was used in state offices, and root out the person or organization paying to make the software available to legislators.