Sachs: Benson should provide public documents

Tori Sachs

It’s an election scandal four years in the making, and there’s a good chance you’ve never heard anything about it.

That’s because Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has repeatedly gone to court to withhold public documents related to her handling of massive campaign finance violations by her political ally, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and a nonprofit that illegally ran television ads supporting Whitmer’s campaign for governor in 2018.

A ruling last week from the Court of Appeals demanded Benson come clean about the scandal and release the documents. But that wasn’t the first time a court ruled in our favor on these hidden documents.

In November 2019, I submitted a ten-part Freedom of Information Act request to Benson seeking public documents related to campaign finance complaints filed against “Build a Better Michigan,” a nonprofit that supported Whitmer’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

Build a Better Michigan was run by lobbyist Mark Burton, her former chief of staff in the Senate, who was subsequently appointed Whitmer’s chief strategist.

The state determined in 2018 that Build a Better Michigan engaged in “express advocacy” advertisements and coordinated with the Whitmer campaign. According to the department, the committee had violated campaign finance law by spending millions of dollars on TV advertisements that featured Whitmer and identified her as a candidate, then failed to disclose it as an “in-kind” contribution to her campaign.

Such contributions wildly exceed donation limits and violate the state’s prohibition on funding from corporate sources.

A similar violation in 2014, committed by a Republican-allied group in support of a Republican candidate, resulted in penalties administered by the Secretary of State that matched the amount illegally spent.

Such a penalty for Build a Better Michigan would have neared a $2 million fine.

Instead, Benson levied a civil fine of only $37,500 and refused to release public records about the decision. Whitmer faced no penalty for the coordination or for personally appearing in the ads.

Clearly, Benson’s ruling was out of the mainstream and contrary to previous practice by her department. When Republicans broke campaign finance law, the Republican secretary of state enforced the law and held them accountable. Benson refused to hold her ally Whitmer to the same legal standard.

When Benson denied my FOIA, we took her office to court to force the release of public records about the scandal that Benson has spent years hiding from voters. Last October, the Court of Claims Judge Christopher Murray sided with us, ordering Benson to turn over the majority of the documents requested and to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees.

Last week, the Court of Appeals unanimously backed Judge Murray and upheld his orders to release the documents.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, holds a brief press conference to announce the expansion of mobile branch operations at Pope Francis Center in Detroit.

This isn’t the only time Benson has found herself at the center of a transparency and campaign finance scandal. In 2019, she earned criticism for shockingly high fees to fulfill FOIA requests. And earlier this year, she allowed Whitmer to launder millions of dollars in inappropriate campaign cash to the Michigan Democrat Party.

We are once again demanding Benson release the documents as two courts have already ruled she must.

Tori Sachs is executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund.