Michigan Attorney General Nessel won't charge state GOP Chair Ron Weiser
Lansing — Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser won't face criminal charges over his use of party funds in a 2018 deal that required a candidate for secretary of state to abruptly end his campaign, Attorney General Dana Nessel announced Monday.
Nessel, a Democrat, said a conciliation agreement between Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office and the Michigan GOP barred further criminal litigation under the state's campaign finance law and because Weiser, as chairman, is not a public officer as defined by law, other criminal statutes "simply do not apply."
"Paying a candidate for office to withdraw from a statewide election is no doubt insidious behavior that diminishes and undermines our democracy,” Nessel said in a statement. “However, under the circumstances presented, Mr. Weiser's use of political party funds to manipulate the nomination for the office of secretary of state for the 2018 Michigan Republican Convention did not allow for criminal charges to be generated."
A memo on the decision from within the Attorney General's office labeled the actions of Weiser "offensive," levying high-level, public criticism against a person who is a former U.S. ambassador to Slovakia, a prolific GOP donor and fundraiser and a University of Michigan regent.
Nessel began reviewing the arrangement between Weiser and 2018 secretary of state candidate Stan Grot after the conciliation deal with the Democratic secretary of state was signed. Through that agreement, the Michigan Republican Party paid a $200,000 penalty. The Bureau of Elections, which falls under Benson's leadership, found "there may be reason to believe" $200,000 in payments to Grot violated campaign finance law.
The payments came to light in February when then-Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox publicly accused Weiser of orchestrating a "secret deal" with Grot, the Shelby Township clerk, to get him to drop out of the party's nomination race for secretary of state so a different GOP candidate could win. Weiser and Grot have both denied wrongdoing.
Weiser said he would have won if the campaign finance complaint, launched by Cox, went to court. He signed off on the $200,000 conciliation agreement with the secretary of state's office because "the litigation costs to the party would’ve amounted to more than the payment demanded by the secretary of state," he said.
According to documents released by the Michigan Bureau of Elections, Grot and Weiser reached 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 will fully endorse that person," read the agreement between Grot and Weiser.
On Monday, John Inhulsen, general counsel for the Michigan Republican Party, said Nessel was correct in determining "hiring Stan Grot to successfully build the grassroots of the party and win Macomb County was legal."
"It shouldn’t have taken an investigation and waste of taxpayer dollars to figure that out," Inhulsen said. "Now hopefully she has the necessary time and resources she needs to investigate the Governor Whitmer nursing home deaths and millions in illegal campaign contributions."
Grot, a longtime party activist who is influential within the GOP, withdrew from the secretary of state race on Aug. 17, 2018, ahead of the party's nominating convention. 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. Multiple Republicans have said Treder Lang was the preferred candidate by some party leaders because she would be the lone female nominee for the three top-of-the-ticket positions.
In a memo released Monday, Nessel's office found that Michigan's laws against extortion and bribery didn't apply to the situation because the "only person
who could be considered a public official would be Mr. Weiser."
"But as the chairman of the MIGOP he would not be a public official for purposes of the criminal statutes," wrote Danielle Hagaman Clark, the office's division chief for criminal trials and appeals.
Weiser also didn't qualify as "a public official" when it came to the potential charge of misconduct in office. His position as chairman of the state party is not statutorily created, requires no oath and is not invested with any sovereign function of the government, Hagaman Clark wrote.
"The actions of Mr. Weiser are no doubt offensive," she wrote. "Paying someone to step down from a statewide election is corrupt behavior. Paying a less favored candidate, to drop out of the primary in order for a stronger candidate to prevail reeks of offensive behavior. But because he is not a public official, this charge fails."
In addition to being the state party chairman, Weiser, who founded a real estate company, was elected to the University of Michigan's board of regents in 2016. He has been a significant donor to the school with a building on the campus named for him.
Nessel is up for reelection in 2022. She will face a GOP challenger.