Michigan’s Corruption Problem — Time for an Intervention

House Democrats Prescribe a Remedy for Corruption

“In a world where invisible backers with unlimited resources can fund candidates they like and approve of — who will consistently vote their way — there is no democracy.” — Michigan Rep. Jon Hoadley

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Source: Center for Public Integrity

Several weeks ago we learned that the Center for Public Integrity ranked Michigan dead last in the nation for integrity in governance, earning failing grades in key categories related to campaign finance, lobbying disclosure, and overall accountability. With so little disclosure, Michigan citizens are left in the dark as to whether there is even the possibility of an impropriety on the part of their elected and appointed leaders.

In the past three election cycles Michigan’s Supreme Court, considered among the worst in the nation for routinely putting politics above propriety, has wildly outspent other high courts on campaigns — earning yet another distinction of ill repute for the Great Lakes State. In a Brennan Center for Justice report, Bankrolling the Bench — The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14, Michigan again got top billing on the naughty list:

Brennan report on MI SC $

Source: Brennan Center for Justice

There’s a storied history of wheeling and dealing in Michigan high court campaigns. House Rep. Vanessa Guerra (D-95) describes the monied backdrop:

“Since 2000, 71 million dollars has been spent in Michigan, filling just 18 supreme court seats. Of that, more than 39 million dollars was outside the campaign disclosure system. Fifty-five percent of funding for a single office — and it was all dark money.”

Dark money or fully disclosed, that is simply too much cash in Michigan’s judiciary. State guidelines regarding judicial recusal do not allow the dismissal of a judge on the grounds that they’ve taken truck loads of money from a party to a case before them. The Judicial Disqualification Research Center describes the burden of proof:

Under the current Michigan rule, personal bias for or against a party or attorney is a valid ground for seeking judicial disqualification, but a mere “appearance of bias” is not. Thus, a party who wishes to challenge a Michigan judge for bias must overcome a heavy presumption of judicial impartiality.

The problem is compounded with the influx of undisclosed campaign funds — how is a litigant to even know if the judge has ties to a party with interests in the case?

Yet, GOP leaders blithely march on in their quest to further corrupt the broken system.

Amid the fetid and frenzied atmosphere of their 2013 lame duck session, Michigan lawmakers took their cue from the 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, and granted themselves a special holiday gift in the form of Senate Bill 661, which scandalously doubled allowable personal campaign contributions from 20 to 40 thousand dollars. Gov. Snyder signed the bill into law on the day after Christmas — giving it immediate effect.

This is nothing new, Michigan’s elected leaders have long been addicted to campaign cash. Describing the breadth of the problem, Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-60) had this to say:

“Over the last few decades… we have seen a massive shift in the way that we fund elections, with this rise of dark money and super PACs. If there is a wealthy special interest, a secretive donor, they can have significant influence on an election process.”

“In a world where invisible backers with unlimited resources can fund candidates they like and approve of, who will consistently vote their way, there is no democracy.”

Representatives Guerra and Hoadley are offering at least a partial legislative remedy for this gross lack of transparency in the form of House Bills 5067 and 5068. These proposals address two of the more egregious oversights found within Michigan’s campaign finance law.

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Guerra and Hoadley press conference. Source: House Dems

House Bill 5067 would amend the Michigan Campaign Finance Act to prevent candidates for office from using funds from their campaign committee to pay late filing fees on their campaign reports. This means contributors will not pay for the irresponsible behavior of candidates. Late filings are frequently an intentional scheme used to hide the names and amounts from the public immediately preceding an election. The companion legislation, HB 5068, would require monthly campaign finance reports, instead of quarterly.

Both bills were referred to the House Committee on Elections, chaired by Rep. Lisa Posthumos Lyons (R-86), the former chair of the Education Committee who likened teachers to swine. With a five to three Republican advantage, the Elections Committee is sitting on numerous reform proposals, including three attempts to allow no-reason absentee voting, others address lobby reforms, ease of voter registration, and a couple to regulate the reporting of “issue ad” aka dark money.

The diagnosis of a lack of transparency in Michigan is clear, but the prognosis for the state remains as murky as its politics. Will the GOP swallow its medicine?

Not likely.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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