The Michigan Department of State believes a pair of nonprofits with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey illegally solicited donations to send dark money to an effort to undermine Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s power to issue sweeping pandemic orders.
The department, led by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, on Friday referred the details of a 2021 complaint against two political nonprofits — Michigan! My Michigan! and Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility — to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel for possible criminal investigation.
“The Bureau of Elections has reason to believe Michigan! My Michigan! and Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility violated the Michigan Campaign Finance Act. Following the groups’ refusal to enter into a conciliation agreement, the department has referred the matter to the attorney general,” said Tracy Wimmer, a department spokeswoman.
A Nessel spokeswoman said the attorney general’s office has received the complaint and is reviewing it.
Brian D. Shekell, a lawyer who represents the nonprofits, said in a statement both organizations fully complied with the law. In previous correspondence with the state he denied any misconduct, saying in part the original complaint, “is replete with hyperbole and adjectives designed to let emotion control over facts and the law.”
Lawyers also pointed out the state dismissed a similar complaint previously filed against Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility.
“(Both nonprofits) have at all times complied with Michigan campaign finance laws. We are looking forward to defending these baseless accusations and bringing to light the Secretary of State’s decision to put politics ahead of the law,” said Heather Lombardini, president of Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, in a statement.
“We remain committed to discussing potential resolution if and when the Secretary of State realizes that facts, the law and democracy should always prevail over political ambitions.”
The allegations stem from the efforts of Unlock Michigan, a petition initiative that successfully garnered enough support to change a law used by Whitmer to issue largescale health and safety orders in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Conservatives, including Shirkey, R-Clarklake, blasted the governor’s actions, arguing the orders amounted to an unconstitutional overreach.
In order to get the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to change the law, Unlock Michigan hired a company to collect signatures. Documents obtained by the state show on multiple occasions before Unlock paid that company, it received a corresponding payment from Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility or Michigan! My Michigan!
Both organizations are led by people who either previously worked for Senate Republicans or Shirkey or continue to work for the Michigan Republican Party. Shirkey has also held fundraisers where he’s solicited funds for these nonprofits, according to Bob LaBrant, a GOP strategist and former general counsel for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce who goes to great lengths to show ties between Shirkey and these groups in his original complaint.
A spokesman for Unlock Michigan declined to comment.
The coordination is a key indicator that the groups may have violated the state’s campaign finance act, according to Benson’s department.
“It is, however, a violation of the act for an organization to raise money on behalf of the ballot question committee in order to shield the organization’s donors from the reporting requirements of the act,” reads a letter from Adam Fracassi, with the Michigan Bureau of Elections.
“Although it may be possible that each entity raised those funds in the first half of 2020 independently of each entity’s support for Unlock, to assume that the aggressive fundraising activity necessary for each organization to raise the sums that were then transferred to Unlock was completely independent strains credulity.”
The department believes these actions indicate both nonprofits may qualify as formal committees that helped the Unlock process. As a formal committee, both would need to file with the state campaign finance statements that disclose donations and expenses. Failure to do so can lead to a fine or a misdemeanor for the treasurer or whomever is in charge of record-keeping, according to state law.
The department noted both nonprofits declined to provide tax forms from 2020 and a list of all donations and expenditures larger than $500 since the start of 2020.
Lawyers representing the nonprofits argue LaBrant failed to prove Shirkey controls or coordinates either nonprofit. A Shirkey spokesman referred comment to the nonprofits.
Once the Department of State receives a complaint and determines it may be valid, it is required to give the alleged offenders 90 days to provide additional information that may resolve the issue. Although both nonprofits had months to act, neither provided additional information, according to the state.
Contact Dave Boucher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-938-4591. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.