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Whitmer campaign complaints on plane flights, fundraising dismissed

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did not violate campaign finance laws when she accepted contributions above the state fundraising limit because she was facing recall efforts, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office said Tuesday in response to a complaint. 

But the Michigan Bureau of Elections said it would welcome a request to revisit and potentially revise the policy.

Benson's department also ruled that Whitmer's use of campaign funds to charter a private flight to visit her father in Florida this spring was not a campaign finance violation because it was for her physical safety.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office dismissed campaign finance complaints against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's campaign.

The two decisions, issued four days before Christmas, resolve complaints filed by conservative groups over the Whitmer campaign's spending and fundraising practices in 2021. 

“As with any complaint, the professional staff with Michigan’s Bureau of Elections conducted a thorough analysis that included a review of all relevant laws, policies, and the facts presented, which resulted in the department concluding that there was no legal violation in either instance,” said Jake Rollow, a spokesman for Benson's office.

Michigan Rising Action, the conservative group that filed a complaint over Whitmer's Florida flight, alleged Tuesday that Benson's department's ruling marks a "defining moment" of the Democratic leaders' tenure. 

“Secretary of State Benson’s ruling confirms that ‘rules for thee, not for me’ is not just a political quip, but ingrained in Michigan Democrats’ operating procedures,” said Eric Ventimiglia, executive director for Michigan Rising Action.

The conservative Michigan Freedom Fund argued Tuesday's decision will allow Whitmer to funnel the excess campaign cash into "political party coffers" that could fund Whitmer and Benson's re-election campaigns. 

“Today’s ruling by the Democratic Secretary of State is about winning her own election – not upholding the rule of law," said Tori Sachs, executive director for the Michigan Freedom Fund. "Benson is encouraging partisans to file recalls in order to game the system and raise unlimited campaign funds.”

The July complaints stem from two different issues — spending on a March personal flight and fundraising during 2021 that exceeded state contribution limits.

In August, the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund filed a campaign finance complaint against Whitmer's reelection committee over excess contributions it received totaling about $4 million through October. The group argued that the contributions comprised "the largest money grab ever seen in Michigan to ignore contribution limits."

State law stops gubernatorial candidates from receiving individual donor contributions of more than $7,150, but that cap is lifted if a candidate is facing active recall petitions. The Freedom Fund argued the lifting of the cap, based on a 1983 attorney general opinion, was improper; and, even if it wasn't, the recalls against Whitmer were anything but active. 

The Bureau of Elections on Tuesday agreed that the "mere act of forming and registering a recall committee" isn't enough to raise contribution limits. Instead, a recall committee must also take some other action to be considered active, such as spending money, soliciting funds or actively gathering signatures. 

But the bureau also noted that the exact definitions of when a recall effort is active versus inactive and when that would result in a closure of the increased contribution window was not clear prior to Tuesday's decision. 

"While the department would like to revisit the decades-old policy regarding fundraising into a campaign committee during a recall effort, and would welcome a request for a revised declaratory ruling, in the matter before the department, which is bound by precedent and law, there was no evidence of a violation," the bureau said in a statement.

Last month, Whitmer's campaign said it was preparing to disburse millions of dollars of the excess campaign contributions after a Michigan Supreme Court order ended many of the recalls against her. As of Oct. 25, campaign finance records indicated the governor had collected about $4 million over state contribution limits. 

In a Tuesday statement, Whitmer's campaign spokeswoman Maeve Coyle called the complaint one of many "baseless attacks" on the governor. 

"Between the dozens of recall attempts and more than $2 million spent on attack ads, Republicans have tried any number of stunts to mislead Michiganders about Gov. Whitmer and her record of putting Michigan first," Coyle said. 

In July, the conservative group Michigan Rising Action filed a campaign finance complaint alleging Whitmer violated campaign finance law by using campaign money on a private charter flight to visit her father in Florida in March. Whitmer took criticism over the flight because it took place as COVID-19 case rates were increasing in Michigan. 

Whitmer's campaign argued the expenditure was permissible because of security threats resulting from her position as governor. But the governor later reimbursed her campaign for the cost of four first-class one-way tickets between Lansing and Florida. 

The Bureau of Elections found Tuesday that while Whitmer's trip was personal, elements of the trip should fall under her official role because she was forced to make alternative, pricier accommodations due to threats she's received in her official role as governor.

"In this case, the department finds that Gov. Whitmer’s stated concern for her safety and security is a direct result of her status as governor, and that, particularly given the tenor and intensity of the threats included with Gov. Whitmer’s response statement, travel via private

chartered flight rather than by commercial airline is a response rationally related to those security concerns," the bureau said. 

Coyle said Whitmer's campaign was "glad to see the matter closed."

"A miscommunication occurred with the flight company about the source of payment, and once we were made aware of the issue, it was immediately corrected and the flight was paid for in compliance with FAA regulations and Michigan campaign finance law," Coyle said. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

Staff writer Craig Mauger contributed.