By CRAIG MAUGER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING (APRIL 30, 2018) — In the summer of 2017, a conservative group paid to send Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard on a trip to London.
While there, Leonard — joined by lobbyists and lawmakers from other states — had the chance to exchange ideas with members of Parliament and to study former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, according to the group.
The public would never have known about the trip if not for the FBI reportedly looking into an Ohio lawmaker who also went on the excursion and a Facebook photo that documented it.
Because of large blind spots in Michigan law, state officeholders, like Leonard, can go on trips funded by interest groups and easily avoid public detection. The same blind spots that exist in Michigan don't exist in some neighboring states or at the federal level.
One of Michigan’s loopholes dates back 24 years. It allows lawmakers to go on trips funded by lobbyists without the trips being disclosed as long as the trips cost less than $800.
And if a group that’s not officially registered as a lobbyist pays for a fact-finding or educational trip, Michigan law doesn’t require disclosure at all.
So while lobbyists reported paying $24,154 for 17 trips for state officeholders in 2017, there’s no way to tell how many other trips took place. And many lawmakers are quite secretive about it.
A source connected to the Legislature who declined to be named said trips overseas, like Leonard’s trip to London, don’t happen that often. But the source said trips paid for by groups to places within the U.S. happen “all the time.”
Asked about that, Rep. Aaron Miller, who chairs the House Elections and Ethics Committee, said trips happen “pretty often.” But Miller, a Republican from Sturgis, said he’s not sure how many are paid for by groups that fall outside lobbying regulations because they’re not registered lobbyists.
It’s tough, Miller said, because while the trips could potentially be expensive, the law is silent on their disclosure.
“It probably happens more than people think and it probably happens under the radar,” Miller said.
Michigan’s threshold for reporting travel funded by those who are registered lobbyists dates back 24 years.
Registered lobbyists in Michigan are organizations or businesses that spend money directly communicating with officeholders to try to influence legislative action.
During the 1993-1994 legislative session. then-Sen. Dick Posthumus, sponsored a bill to try to force lobbyists to disclose trips they were funding. But the bill only required disclosure if the travel and lodging expenses amounted to more than $500.
“Although the Michigan Legislature has been relatively free of scandal over the years, there appears to be a general cynicism among the public toward elected officials, the elective process and legislative operations,” said a state Senate analysis of the bill at the time.
With widespread support, the Legislature approved the bill. But lobbyist-reporting thresholds in Michigan law are tied to inflation. So today, lobbyists only have to disclose payments for travel and lodging if the payments are above $800.
As an example, a round-trip airline ticket from Detroit to New York City costs less than half that amount, according to price listings currently available online.
Miller himself said he went on a trip in 2016 to visit the headquarters of electric car-manufacturer Tesla in California. The trip allowed Miller to gather information for legislation he was working on to allow car manufacturers to directly sell their cars to consumers.
The trip to California with a one-night hotel stay for Miller wasn’t disclosed by Tesla, and that’s likely because it cost less than $775, the reporting threshold at the time, and didn’t have to be. Tesla reported buying trips for five lawmakers over the first seven months of 2016. Two of the other trips cost between $800 and $850, according to Tesla's disclosures.
According to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures, neighboring states don’t have similar reporting thresholds for travel funded by lobbyists.
For instance, in Ohio, the reporting threshold is $25 for gifts, entertainment and travel, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. According to Indiana law, a lobbyist can only pay for a lawmaker’s travel outside the state if the lawmaker’s “sole purpose for attending the meeting is to serve as a speaker or other key participant in the meeting.” House or Senate leadership also has to sign off on the travel.
The reporting threshold impacts only trips paid for by those who are officially registered lobbyists.
Michigan doesn’t have a mechanism for lawmakers to disclose other trips they receive from non-lobbyist groups that may want to send them on fact-finding or educational missions connected to their elected positions.
That’s the case for Leonard’s trip to London. Although lobbyists from other states reportedly went on the trip, GOPAC, the conservative group that funded it, isn’t a registered lobbyist in Michigan.
Leonard’s spokesman, Gideon D’Assandro, said Leonard wasn’t lobbied while on the trip.
According to GOPAC’s executive director, Jessica Curtis, the event Leonard attended was put on by GOPAC Education Fund’s Institute for Leadership Development program. GOPAC Education Fund is a nonprofit, meaning it doesn’t have to disclose where it gets its money.
Leonard serves on GOPAC’s Legislative Leaders Advisory Board and received a $5,000 campaign contribution from the GOPAC Election Fund in December 2017.
The description of the London event doesn’t necessarily fit the somewhat narrow definition of lobbying in Michigan law. That’s despite the fact Ohio media outlets are reporting that lobbyists for the payday lending industry went on the trip as well.
There’s currently legislation pending in the Michigan Senate that would increase the amount payday lenders can loan out. But D’Assandro said Leonard has “not personally worked on payday lending legislation at all the entire term.”
In Wisconsin, the state’s Ethics Code generally prohibits legislators from accepting free or discounted travel and lodging or other valuable gifts. However, if the travel is related to official state business and the beneficiary is the state, not the legislator, then a lawmaker may accept it. But the lawmaker still has to report it on his or her financial disclosures, according to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission.
Michigan is one of two states that don’t require any type of personal financial disclosure from state officeholders.
At the federal level, members of Congress must file personal disclosures that include information on trips they receive. They also have to file reports which “detail travel-related expenses reimbursed by non-government sources,” according to the U.S. House’s Office of the Clerk. Those filings can be viewed here.
According to those filings, groups sponsored trips to 24 destinations for members of the U.S. House from Michigan in 2017.