Dark money dominated Supreme Court, AG TV campaigns

LANSING -- Unreported, unregulated "dark money" paid the majority of costs for television advertising in Michigan's 2014 supreme court and attorney general campaigns, according to records compiled by the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

The Michigan Republican Party was the principal sponsor of advertising about Michigan Supreme Court candidates. Its ads touted incumbent Justices Brian Zahra and David Viviano and Judge James Redford as protectors of children. The Republican Party spent $4.2 million for its ads, which began on October 1st, but reported no television advertising to the Michigan Bureau of Elections.

That means the party, whose ads invite viewers to call its nominees for the court, is using the ploy that the ads are "issue" advocacy, which does not have to be reported to the State. When such expenditures are not reported, the donors behind the spending are not reported either.

The Center for Individual Freedom, an Alexandria, VA 501(c)(4) "social welfare" corporation, spent $468,000 for broadcast advertising supportive of the Republican nominees in the Grand Rapids and Flint/Saginaw media markets. Center for Individual Freedom is not registered as a political committee in Michigan and its advertising was not reported to the Bureau of Elections.

Justices Zahra and Viviano spent $943,000 for a jointly sponsored statewide ad campaign. Justice Zahra's campaign committee spent $62,500 individually in the Detroit media market. Justice Viviano's campaign spent $79,000 individually in the Grand Rapids market.

Justice-elect Richard Bernstein's campaign spent $1,487,000 for television advertising in the four major markets south of Clare. He was the only Democratic Party nominee to buy television advertising. No third-party organizations bought television supporting the Democratic nominees, or opposing the Republicans.

"The problem with this unreported, unregulated advertising is that it can conceal the identity of a major campaign finance supporter who appears as a litigant before the justices on the Court," said Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. "If such a supporter is involved in a case before the justices, his or her opponent in litigation is justified in asking the beneficiary of the support to recuse himself from the case."

"Without transparency the presumption of impartial justice is compromised," Robinson said.

In the attorney general campaign, the Michigan Advocacy Trust was the dominant spender for candidate-focused TV advertising. It paid $2.6 million for hagiographic ads about Attorney General Bill Schuette, and ads that called his Democratic opponent, Mark Totten, a liar.

Michigan Advocacy Trust is registered with the IRS as a 527 committee by Republican operative Richard McLellan. But it does not report its receipts and expenditures to the IRS, as most 527 committees do. McLellan claimed a reporting exemption as a qualified state or local political organization. However, the condition for receiving that reporting exemption is that the committee is required by its state law to report its receipts and expenditures to its home state, and it actually does report. Michigan Advocacy Trust doesn't report its receipts and expenditures to the State of Michigan.

McLellan led Attorney General Schuette's transition team when Schuette was preparing to assume the AG's office after the 2010 election. Michigan Advocacy Trust spent $1.1 million for unreported, unregulated ads attacking Schuette's Democratic opponent in the 2010 campaign.

"The problem here is the question of how prosecutorial discretion may be related to donors to the dark money committee," Robinson said. "What considerations were sought by donors, and what will be granted? We have no way of knowing."

Mr. Schuette's campaign committee spent $1,776,000 for television.

The Michigan Democratic State Central Committee spent $470,000 for unreported ads in the Detroit media market that attacked Attorney General Schuette for "his extreme personal agenda." Mark Totten's campaign spent $358,000 in the four markets south of Clare.

"It is shameful to have this level of dark money activity in the campaigns for our highest court and top law enforcement officer," Robinson said. "The campaigns that should have had the greatest transparency had the least."

A news release last week from the Brennan Center for Justice reported that the Michigan Republican Party spent $3.2 million for television about the candidates for the Michigan Supreme Court. Those data were based on estimates by the Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), and they did not include cable advertising.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network's data were compiled from the public files of state broadcasters and cable systems. Adjusted estimates of CMAG data were used to project costs incurred by independent spenders at two stations that are withholding records of contracts for "issue" ads about state candidates: WJBK, FOX-2 in Detroit, and WZZM, ABC-13 in Grand Rapids.

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