By CRAIG MAUGER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING — An attorney who says he wanted to “put his money where his mouth was” gave at least $200,000 to a Super PAC this summer, funding a vicious campaign to try to unseat Genesee County’s long-time sheriff.
The attorney is Glen Lenhoff, who’s practiced law in Genesee County for 35 years but currently lives in Oakland County. He bankrolled a Super PAC that formed in April, called New Sheriff In Town. The mission was to try to help a Democratic challenger beat Sheriff Robert Pickell, with whom Lenhoff has had a past feud.
Pickell has been Genesee County’s sheriff for 18 years. Pickell said the Super PAC’s campaign, which was ultimately unsuccessful, was “the most venomous, vile campaign” he’s seen in the county.
“What they were trying to do is buy the office of sheriff,” Pickell said in an interview last week. “They’re the Koch brothers of Genesee County.”
New Sheriff In Town’s campaign finance disclosures reveal $142,802 in spending as of the end of the last reporting period, July 20, two weeks before the Aug. 2 election. They also show that Lenhoff was essentially the only funder, giving at least $200,000 between May 2 and July 28, just days before the Aug. 2 primary. Lenhoff’s giving total could be greater than $200,000. A full report from the Super PAC won’t be due until later this fall.
Federal Communications Commission filings show the Super PAC purchased at least $40,000 in broadcast TV ad time. And Pickell tracked at least 10 mailers that were sent to voters by the Super PAC. One of the Super PAC's own mailers alleged that 12 mailers would be sent out. The mailers slammed Pickell and praised Dan Allen, the Democratic challenger who is police chief in Argentine Twp.
The Super PAC also spent money on consultants, polling, billboard advertising and print advertising, according to its disclosure.
Pickell estimates that New Sheriff In Town spent about $250,000 on the race. In July, the Flint Journal highlighted the Super PAC, noting that Lenhoff stated that he had given $100,000 to it at that point.
Lenhoff’s donations alone drove New Sheriff In Town into MCFN's ranking of the top 50 most active PACs statewide in Michigan for the election cycle as of July 20. New Sheriff In Town ranked above PACs for major statewide interest groups like Delta Dental, the Michigan Restaurant Association and the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association. Donors can give unlimited amounts to Super PACs as long as the Super PACs don’t coordinate with candidates.
New Sheriff In Town's mailers accused Pickell of using his staff to “spy” on political opponents, of double-crossing the United Auto Workers and of turning the Flint water crisis into a “publicity stunt.” One mailer depicted Pickell as Pinocchio. Another mailer focused on a sexual misconduct case the county settled involving a former sheriff’s lieutenant and former sheriff’s department employees.
In that case, female sheriff’s department employees sued the county over its handling of a lieutenant who allegedly committed sexual misconduct. In the case, the female employees were represented by Lenhoff.
“Abuse of women in the sheriff’s department is a disgrace,” one mailer said. “You’d think the sheriff would make sure sex crimes do not take place under his watch, but he doesn’t.”
Lenhoff said that case was one of the reasons he doesn’t believe Pickell should be re-elected sheriff. The lieutenant’s offenses weren’t taken seriously enough by Pickell, Lenhoff alleged.
“I feel very strongly that Mr. Pickell should not be sheriff and that someone else should be,” Lenhoff said.
Pickell alleged the Lenhoff-funded Super PAC was spreading lies. In one instance, As an example, Pickell said the Super PAC alleged he was getting five pensions. Pickell said he’s getting one. In another example, Pickell said the Super PAC incorrectly listed his age as 76 when he’s 74.
Many of New Sheriff In Town’s mailers featured primary challenger Dan Allen’s photo. Allen ran against Pickell in 2012. In that election, there were three candidates — and no Super PAC raising $200,000. Pickell got 64.4 percent of the vote. Another candidate got 21.8 percent. And Allen got 13.5 percent.
After all of the ads and mailers this year benefitting Allen, Pickell got 57.5 percent of the vote. Allen got 42.1 percent — almost a 30-point increase.
Despite the loss on Election Day, Lenhoff said he was “proud” of his donations to the Super PAC, and he thanked the people who voted for Allen. But Lenhoff, a Democrat, said he wouldn't try to sway the general election, which Pickell is the favorite to win.
Asked about laws that allow donors to give unlimited amounts to Super PACs, Lenhoff said Super PACs could be bad in situations where they use large contributions to campaign against a candidate without much money to counteract the Super PAC. But in the Genesee County situation, Lenhoff noted that Pickell’s campaign was able to spend at least $217,296 for itself. Allen raised just $9,861.
“I am not going to sit here and watch Pickell bury Allen due to his financial advantage,” Lenhoff said. “That just did not seem fair to me.”
Pickell said he doesn’t like the fact that one wealthy individual can fund a campaign against a candidate. Many candidates, he said, don’t have the money to fight back. Pickell, whose campaign ran broadcast TV ads supporting him, said he was able to raise the campaign money he used this cycle over the past eight years.
“My contributions came from hundreds of people,” Pickell said. “One guy was their contributor. That’s what makes this whole thing dangerous.”