By CRAIG MAUGER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING — State Rep. Kurt Heise (R-Plymouth Twp.), who’s running for Plymouth Twp. supervisor this year, still remembers the moment he discovered the dark-money-funded website bearing his name: www.HigherCrimeHeise.com.
It was Dec. 15 when he received a text message from one of his House colleagues. The site, which Heise was alerted to, slams him over his support for criminal justice reform, saying, among other things, that your family’s safety is worth $78 million in budget savings to Heise.
With a corresponding Facebook page, the site also accuses Heise of backing a proposal that “would release violent criminals from prison in order to balance the state budget.”
“I was shocked,” Heise said of seeing the website for the first time. “I was shocked by the unfairness of it, the ferocity, the over-the-top nature, the use of racist images, code words and fear mongering.”
He continued, “As soon as I saw who paid for it, I connected the dots pretty quickly.”
At the bottom of the website, a disclaimer says the site was paid for by Citizens for Accountable Government, a nonprofit that incorporated in Michigan in 2013. Heise alleges that the group, which doesn’t have to disclose its donors, is being funded by individuals who have financial interests in seeing the current Plymouth Twp. supervisor, Shannon Price, re-elected in the township of about 27,000 people.
Since forming in July 2013, Citizens for Accountable Government has been busy. In October 2013, according to the Detroit Free Press, it encouraged the City of Rochester Hills to put its trash-hauler contract out for bid, even paying for robo-calls about the contract.
Just last year, Plymouth Twp. agreed to a new trash contract with Rizzo Environmental Services, which also had encouraged Rochester Hills to consider changing its trash hauler in 2013.
Back, in Plymouth Twp., in the spring of 2014, a representative of Citizens for Accountable Government encouraged the Plymouth Township board to approve an LA Fitness location in the township, according to The Eagle newspaper,
Then, in the summer of 2014, the nonprofit paid for TV ads touting Westland Mayor Bill Wild in the Wayne County executive race, according to federal broadcast TV disclosures.
Throughout its existence, the nonprofit has been led by former State Rep. Deborah Whyman, an attorney by trade. Its board of directors features former State Rep. Leon Drolet, of Macomb, John Casey, of Grosse Pointe Woods, and Sue Waltman, of St. Clair Shores. The organization’s address is a Canton post office box.
The Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) sought comment from Whyman and all three board members over the last weeks. None of the board members responded to requests for comment. Whyman has responded but has not answered questions about the nonprofit she's leading.
According to the nonprofit’s filings with the state, the group’s missions include “encouraging open and competitive bidding” and “encouraging compliance with both the Michigan Open Meetings Act and the Michigan Freedom of Information Act to help build confidence in government.”
While fighting criminal justice reform wasn’t listed as one of the group’s missions, the group has used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in its recent push involving Heise.
According to a document obtained by MCFN, Whyman filed a FOIA request with Plymouth Twp. on Sept. 10, 2015, asking for all police reports pertaining to Heise. Less than two weeks later, on Sept. 21, 2015, West Michigan-based blogger Brandon Hall filed his own FOIA request for a specific police report tied to Heise. “I believe this may have recently been FOIA’d and should be somewhat easy to get,” Hall wrote in his email request.
Two days later, Hall posted a piece on his West Michigan Politics blog about a 2010 incident that had occurred at Heise’s home.
Heise said the township spent thousands of dollars on legal counsel trying to determine how to handle the FOIA requests. Township Trustee Robert J. Doroshewitz said he didn't know the exact cost but he said the township did enlist special legal counsel to determine what to do. The township also had two closed-door meetings during which the FOIA requests were discussed, the trustee said.
“The real question is why was that issue before the board to begin with,” Doroshewitz said.
On Facebook, Citizens for Accountable Government has labeled Heise irresponsible and demanded that he calculate and specify how much money the state will save from his proposed criminal justice reforms.
Heise has fired back alleging that Whyman “is a tool for” Rizzo Environmental Services and its director of governmental affairs, Joe Munem. Rizzo, Heise says, “was awarded a massive waste hauling contract by Shannon Price.”
However, because Citizens for Accountable Government is a nonprofit that isn’t telling voters directly and explicitly to support or oppose a candidate, its donor list will likely never become public under Michigan’s current set of laws.
Price didn’t respond to a request for comment. Munem, on the other hand, did.
Asked to respond to Heise’s allegations, Munem focused on one specific claim in an email to MCFN, saying that Heise has falsely been alleging that Munem has given financially to Price’s campaigns. Munem also alleged that Heise “confuses issues to avoid his record as an elected official.”
“Heise’s lack of credibility with that false accusation alone makes my engaging with him and his other silly allegations tiresome,” Munem said.
As for Heise, he said what’s been happening with Citizens for Accountable Government in Plymouth Twp. could be an example of what’s to come. The nonprofit will likely be used to go after other people as well, Heise said.
“I think this has a chilling effect on candidates across the state,” Heise said. “If people are willing to go to these lengths at the local level, then where does it end?”
Doroshewitz has watched the situation play out from his post on the township board. He said he doubts the attack campaign will work in Plymouth Twp. He said the attack against Heise is “clearly racist.”
“That will not resonate here,” he said of the attack strategy. “I can guarantee you that.”