Editorial: Make campaign finance violations sting

The Detroit News
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shares an excited moment with Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, left, before taking the podium.

A group that actively campaigned for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has gotten its hand slapped and must now pay a fine for its clear violations of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act. That law exists for a reason, and the state must do more to ensure it's getting enforced. 

Whitmer began her term by issuing an executive directive affirming part of the campaign finance act that keeps public employees form using state funds or state time for campaigning. That's a start, but it shouldn't divert attention from the issues that arose during her own campaign.

Build a Better Michigan, the group that's faced sanctions, spent more than $2.4 million in 2018 and ran pro-Whitmer television ads which it argued was a form of “issue advocacy” despite mentioning in the ads that Whitmer was a candidate for governor.

Under Michigan law, there should have been no coordination between Whitmer’s campaign and Build a Better Michigan. Yet the commercials feature the governor speaking directly into the camera with Hollywood quality production.

Many called foul, including former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who launched an investigation into the campaign, after complaints were lodged by the Michigan GOP and Michigan Freedom Fund. New Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson followed through with the investigation. 

The strong appearance of coordination between the group and the campaign, in addition to the other findings of wrongdoing, mandated some sort of penalty.

Benson got the group to agree to pay a settlement of $37,500, less than 2 percent of what they spent during the campaign.

But the precedent for such violations in the state of Michigan is that the violating organization must pay the state 100 percent of the amount of money they spent during the campaign.

It’s noteworthy that Build a Better Michigan was led by Mark Burton during the campaign. He is now Whitmer’s chief strategist.

Benson, who has already sided with Democrats on a recent redistricting deal, continues to show her partisan colors by stating that Build a Better Michigan did illegally spend over $2 million during the midterm election. Yet she then gave the group what Tony Daunt, executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund, calls a “feather tickle on the wrist.”

"This conciliation agreement is incredibly partisan and corrupt," Daunt says. "This isn’t just some random group that was trying to help Whitmer become governor. It was headed by her longtime ally who is now paid by taxpayers."

This is not the precedent Benson should set for future elections. If the cost to give a candidate an edge -- even if it's illegal -- in an election is small, organizations will just include it in their expenditure plan. So long as their party wins, they can find ways to avoid penalties.

In the future, fines must be more than slaps on the wrist for campaign finance violators.

There should also be greater expediency in investigations so that fines can be made during the race.

That way candidates remain more accountable for their actions -- and the actions of their supporters.