Snyder aide Baird threatens to sue Michigan AFL-CIO head over newspaper column

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A top aide to Gov. Rick Snyder is threatening to sue the head of the Michigan State AFL-CIO, warning the labor leader in a telephone message she “better be careful” and “start dealing with facts” about his personal property tax troubles.

Gubernatorial adviser Rich Baird left AFL-CIO President Karla Swift an angry voice message Saturday night in response to a newspaper column she wrote about Baird supposedly claiming an illegal double tax exemption on two homes for three years which later was discovered to be a township clerical error.

Democrats have been lambasting Baird for two weeks after a reporter discovered records showing he was getting a principal residence exemption on his $500,000 home in Clinton County’s Bath Township while maintaining a similar tax exemption on his main home in suburban Chicago.

Bath Township assessor Beth Botke said Wednesday Baird never filed an affidavit seeking the tax break, which exempts homeowners from the 18-mill property tax that supports schools.

Baird got the tax break for the past three years because the township never properly removed the previous owner’s principal residence exemption, Botke said.

“It’s a clerical error, computer error,” said Botke, who apologized to Baird. “It’s not a common mistake, (but) things do happen.”

News of Baird’s tax problem broke days before the Michigan Republican Party’s Aug. 23 state convention. After a reporter brought the issue to Baird’s attention, he wrote a check for $16,700.55 in additional property taxes for 2011, 2012 and 2013 — including $3,202.12 in interest.

Baird left Swift a voice message Saturday night after Swift claimed in a Detroit Free Press guest column that Baird’s double tax exemption “forced his neighbors to pay more for police, fire, roads, schools and other services.”

“This is Rich Baird. I didn’t figure you would pick up on this call,” Baird said in the recorded message. “It would take courage to talk to me face-to-face. No. 1, you better be careful. I may be suing you.”

Baird then informed Swift that his township assessor had apologized for the error before lashing out at Swift for her public criticism of him.

‘Sick and tired’

“I am sick and tired of you people and your unbased attacks. You should be ashamed of yourself,” Baird said. “... So I’m not one to get down into the mud with you people, but I’ve about had it, so let’s just see where this goes when we start dealing with facts, Karla, instead of personal attacks, character assassinations and innuendo. That’s not how this world should operate. You know better.”

Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel confirmed Baird left the message on Swift’s phone.

Baird, whose official title is Snyder’s “transformation manager,” has been a controversial figure in the governor’s administration since The Detroit News first reported he helped form a secret education reform work group dubbed “skunk works.” Snyder disbanded the group after The News exposed its existence.

Baird played key roles in helping create Snyder’s Education Achievement Authority school reform project in Detroit and recruiting Kevyn Orr to be Detroit’s emergency manager. He also was instrumental in getting Treasury Department investment managers huge pay raises of up to 90 percent, making their salaries more competitive with other public pension funds.

A longtime business associate of the governor, Baird joined the administration in 2011 under an unusual employment structure where he was paid a $100,000 annual salary under contract with Snyder’s nonprofit, the New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify, or NERD Fund.

Under pressure from Democrats and open government advocates, Snyder disbanded the NERD Fund last fall and moved Baird on the state’s payroll at an annual salary of $140,000. The governor never disclosed the NERD Fund’s secret donors.

Democrats claimed Baird may have been violating the state’s lobbying law by being employed by the NERD Fund while contacting legislators and state department officials about public policy issues.

Whitmer stands by comment

Swift isn’t the only Democrat in Baird’s sights.

Last Thursday, Baird sent an email to the Senate’s Republican leader, Randy Richardville, saying he was considering suing the Senate’s Democratic leader, Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing, for calling him “a crook” on a public television show.

Baird asked Richardville to forward the message to Whitmer because he didn’t have her publicly available Senate email address.

“I am tired of people like her attempting to do harm to folks who don’t deserve it,” Baird wrote in a follow-up email.

Baird used his state government email account to send the messages.

“So he’s using taxpayer resources ... to make threats to a government official who has raised legitimate questions?” Whitmer said Wednesday.

Whitmer said she stands by her comment that Baird is a “crook.”

“I think the term fits,” Whitmer told The News.

Swift said Wednesday Baird is trying to “bully” his critics and noted Baird’s story about what tax forms he had filled out when he purchased the Bath Township home in 2011 has evolved.

“Every time Richard Baird gets asked about his unpaid property taxes, he gives a different answer,” Swift said in a statement to The News. “Maybe that’s why he’s trying to bully his critics with empty threats. We won’t be silenced.”

Snyder’s office did not respond to a request for an interview with Baird.

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