By MEG DOSTER
For The Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING (July 9, 2019) — While they’re the ones in charge of making Michigan’s laws, many of them have had their own problems complying with campaign finance requirements.
Fundraising committees tied to nearly half of Michigan’s current state officeholders have had to pay financial penalties — often called late filing fees — for failing to meet donor disclosure requirements, according to an analysis of campaign finance records. Current state officeholders’ campaigns and political action committees (PACs) have combined to pay penalties of at least $112,695 throughout the officeholders’ political careers.
The individual late fee payments have a wide range from $10 to $9,550. Often, the reason that lawmakers’ committees had to pay late fees was because they reported financial contributions later than state law required.
According to the analysis, contributions received just before Election Day have been particularly problematic for lawmakers’ campaigns and have triggered many of the largest penalties. If candidates receive a contribution of $500 or more in the final days before an election, they are supposed to disclose the contribution within 48 hours to try to ensure that the public knows about large donors involved in races before voting. Normally, contributions are disclosed in reports every few months.
Failing to file a 48-hour report before the election can lead to an individual late fee of up to $2,000.
Jason Watts, CEO of Sharkbyte Consulting, has done campaign finance compliance work in Michigan for more than 20 years. He said people like routines and can get thrown off by the requirement just before the election that contributions be reported sooner than normal.
“For most campaigns, their treasurer or record-keeper is doing this as a favor and they don’t realize in this window you have to stay on top of everything,” Watts said.
The Michigan Campaign Finance Network compiled the data for this report by reviewing the campaign finance disclosures of each lawmaker’s campaign committees — the committees they use to directly fund their campaigns for office — and their associated leadership PACs — the committees they use to financially support like-minded candidates and causes. You can access a spreadsheet of officeholders' late fees by clicking here.
Some of the lawmakers who served in the House for six years and later moved to the Senate have been filing disclosures for longer than a decade. Others who started serving their first House terms this year began filing reports last year when their campaigns initially launched.
In this tally, MCFN didn’t include fee payments that were later refunded back to the committees because the fees were assessed in error. MCFN also didn’t include fees that had been levied by the state but hadn’t been paid yet by the committees. Last month, MCFN reported that there were more than $1.5 million in unresolved campaign finance fees in Michigan.
Of the current 152 Michigan officeholders — 148 lawmakers, the governor, the secretary of state, the attorney general and the lieutenant governor — committees connected to 71 of them have paid late reporting fees over the years.
The 15 officeholders whose committees have racked up the most late fees were responsible for more than half of the total fees paid: $77,805. They are the following:
— Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Democrat, $12,800 in paid late fees;
— Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, Republican from Clarklake, $9,325 in paid late fees;
— Rep. Larry Inman, Republican from Williamsburg, $8,875 in paid late fees;
— Sen. Rick Outman, Republican from Six Lakes, $8,175 in paid late fees;
— Rep. LaTanya Garrett, Democrat from Detroit, $7,955 in paid late fees;
— Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Democrat, $4,175 in paid late fees;
— Rep. Joe Bellino, Republican from Monroe, $4,025 in paid late fees;
— Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, Democrat from Detroit, $3,650 in paid late fees;
— Sen. Sylva Santana, Democrat from Detroit, $3,100 in paid late fees
— Rep. Donna Lasinski, Democrat from Scio Township, $3,050 in paid late fees;
— Rep. Brian Elder, Democrat from Bay City, $2,750 in paid late fees;
— Rep. Tyrone Carter, Democrat from Detroit, $2,575 in paid late fees;
— Rep. Sara Cambensy, Democrat from Marquette, $2,500 in paid late fees;
— Sen. Kevin Daley, Republican from Lum, $2,450 in paid late fees (2014 Senate campaign);
— Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, Democrat from Dearborn, $2,400 in paid late fees.
Of current officeholders, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s committees have paid the most in campaign finance late fees. Whitmer was a state representative and state senator before she was elected governor in 2018.
Her fundraising committee for governor, Gretchen Whitmer for Governor, paid $9,550 in late fees on April 15, according to state records. The committee raised more than $14 million for the 2018 election cycle. But in the days before the November 2018 election, Gretchen Whitmer for Governor received contributions of at least $500 from 49 individuals and two PACs that the committee didn’t disclose within the required 48 hours, according to state records.
The contributions weren’t reported until after the election and Whitmer’s win. For failing to report the contributions on time, Gretchen Whitmer for Governor paid $9,550 in late fees, according to state records.
Asked about the late fees, Joseph Popek, the treasurer for Gretchem Whitmer for Governor, echoed others in criticizing the state’s online disclosure system, the system through which campaigns report their donors. The system is known as MERTS.
“MERTS, the reporting system used in the State of Michigan, is outdated and breaks down often, especially at the gubernatorial level,” Popek said.
Following Whitmer on the list of officeholders with the most late fees was Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Republican from Clarklake. The bulk of his committees’ total late fees, $9,325, came from his candidate committee Committee to Elect Mike Shirkey State Senate, which formed in 2014.
The committee paid $6,775 in February 2019 because it failed to report contributions it received just before the November 2018 election until after the election.
The campaign of Rep. Larry Inman, a Republican from Williamsburg who is currently facing charges of extortion, bribery, and lying to an FBI agent, has paid the third most campaign finance late fees: $8,875. Inman pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Some of Inman’s fees dated back to the 2014 election when he received two contributions totaling $11,000 just before Election Day. He had to pay a $2,750 fee for not reporting the contributions until six weeks later.
Sen. Rick Outman, a Republican from Six Lakes, had the fourth highest fee total. But all of Outman’s fees — $8,175 in total — date back years to his time campaigning for the state House.
The committee, Rick Outman for State Representative, received contributions just before the 2010 election but failed to report them until after the election, spurring the late fees. When asked about the penalties, Outman declined to respond.
The problems some candidates have had meeting the disclosure requirements in the so-called “late-reporting” window before an election was no surprise to Watts. He said he now stresses to his clients the importance of informing him of contributions just before the election.
Watts, who works with Republican candidates, floated the idea of moving Michigan to a disclosure system where large contributions always have to be reported within two or three days but candidates are allowed to accept contributions from corporations. Currently, in Michigan, candidates usually file reports every few months on a regular schedule and they cannot receive money for their campaigns directly from corporate entities — they can receive money from corporations’ PACs.
“We have to make it so it becomes a habit,” Watts said of candidates disclosure contributions quickly. “We don’t have it becoming a habit.”