By CRAIG MAUGER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING (Sept. 24, 2019) — Michigan lawmakers have been headlining fundraisers where donors are asked for “corporate contributions only,” a request that could ensure the sources of money and the groups collecting it remain secret.
Over the last month, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) has obtained three different fundraiser invitations for events in Lansing that featured Republican lawmakers and specifically asked attendees to bring “corporate contributions only.”
Those would be contributions directly from corporate entities, which the public usually can’t track. They’re different than contributions from political action committees (PACs), which have to disclose their spending to the public. They’re also different than contributions from individuals.
Lonnie Scott, executive director of the Lansing-based progressive group Progress Michigan, said he was surprised that consultants would put such a request in writing on invitations.
“I think it’s the exact opposite of where people want campaign finance to go,” said Scott, who also referenced a number of candidates who’ve declined to accept contributions even from PACs connected to corporations.
Sen. Peter Lucido, a Republican from Shelby Township, is one of three lawmakers who either participated in a corporate-only fundraiser or who are scheduled to, according to invitations provided to MCFN. Lucido is scheduled to be the “special guest” at a fundraiser for a nonprofit called A Brighter America on Oct. 2, 2019, in downtown Lansing. The minimum ticket price for the event is $250, according to an invitation.
“This is a CORPORATE EVENT, only corporate checks are accepted,” said an email that accompanied an invitation to A Brighter America’s event.
Lucido was the only lawmaker who agreed to answer questions about his participation in the fundraisers. He said he plans to use the money the nonprofit raises to sponsor events in his district to benefit senior citizens and veterans. He’s previously funded similar events out of his own pocket, he said. Lucido has also been his own top campaign donor, according to campaign finance disclosures.
As for the invitation, Lucido said he had been advised that his nonprofit could only accept money from corporations*. Lucido didn’t identify who told him that. But the advice would be incorrect because the nonprofit could legally accept money from individuals, PACs, corporations or other groups, according to the law and a handful of attorneys.
* NOTE: After Sen. Lucido was asked about the A Brighter America fundraiser, the organization sent an amended invitation that said "all checks" would be accepted at the event.
MCFN interviewed more than 10 sources for this report, including lobbyists, consultants and national campaign finance experts, about the invitations. Most of them declined to be identified for this piece because of fear of retribution and because of their own work in political fundraising.
Most of them also agreed they hadn’t seen such requests put in writing previously. And multiple experts who follow campaign finance at the state level in other states said they weren’t aware of such a strategy occurring outside of Michigan.
“It’s unusual,” said Austin Graham, state and local campaign finance attorney with the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center.
It’s unclear why the fundraisers have been targeting only corporate money and how often such events have taken place in Lansing over the years. Most of the lawmakers and consultants involved in putting on the “corporate contribution only” events weren’t willing to answer questions.
House Floor Leader Triston Cole, a Republican from Mancelona, and Senate Oversight Chairman Ed McBroom, a Republican from Vulcan, didn’t respond to requests for comment about invitations featuring their names and the request for “corporate contributions only.”
On the evening of June 3, 2019, Cole was scheduled to be the “special guest” for a fundraiser benefiting a nonprofit called Empowering MI Future, according to an invitation provided to MCFN. The event took place at a downtown Lansing bar and featured sponsorship levels ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2019, McBroom was scheduled to participate in a breakfast reception in downtown Lansing to benefit an account called Up Ward Fund, according to another invitation. MCFN could find no state business filings for Up Ward Fund.
In Michigan, lawmakers’ campaigns and their personal political action committees (PACs) can accept only money from individuals and PACs that raise their money from individuals. Their campaigns and PACs can’t accept contributions directly from corporate entities. Candidates must also disclose the sources of the money they raise through their own campaigns and PACs.
But many state lawmakers have set up other accounts, either nonprofit organizations or administrative accounts that fall outside of state campaign finance regulations because they don’t openly focus their activities on telling people how to vote.
These accounts generally can raise money in secret and can accept contributions directly from corporations. In July, MCFN reported that more than half of the 148 lawmakers serving in 2018 had direct connections to either an administrative account or a nonprofit organization that could raise money in secret.
Like Lucido, lawmakers have said they use the accounts to put on events in their districts, to support charitable causes and to fund office-related expenses, like travel and meals. But the accounts have to disclose little about their activities so it’s unclear how all of the funds are actually used.
One way MCFN tracks the existence of these accounts is through the expenditures of PACs. If a PAC gives to a lawmaker’s nonprofit or administrative account, the PAC must disclose the name of the nonprofit and the nonprofit’s address.
If the nonprofit organization accepted only corporate money, such PAC disclosures wouldn’t exist. Two sources for this report identified that as an explanation for why some accounts have been circulating invitations that feature the request for “corporate contributions only.”
That’s “one of the key reasons why you do this,” one source said.
Another potential reason to hold a “corporate contribution only” fundraiser, according to a handful of sources, is to tap into a different field of contributors: Corporations that can’t give to lawmakers’ campaigns or leadership PACs.
Asked about the Michigan invitations Graham, who works for the Campaign Legal Center, mentioned fundraising efforts by former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to raise money from corporate entities for nonprofits supporting his political goals. Those efforts grabbed attention in 2016 when emails from Walker and his staffers were published by The Guardian.
The emails included a message from one of Walker’s advisers who told Walker to “go heavy” after contributions from corporations.