How Senior House Staff Blended Politics And Policy With Lucrative Results

A husband and wife duo held two of the highest-paying jobs as policy staff in the Michigan House. At the same time, their political consulting firm took in hundreds of thousands of dollars from members of the Republican caucus they helped oversee.

 

By SIMON D. SCHUSTER

Michigan Campaign Finance Network

 

LANSING (Dec. 30, 2020) — As House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) gave his farewell address on the floor of the chamber Dec. 21, he had a special mention for two members of his staff.

“The truth is, I would not be where I am without you and I would not be who I am without you,” he said of Anne and Rob Minard, who he called part of his family.

An archetypal power couple, the Minards hold two of the most senior positions in the Michigan House of Representatives. Rob is majority chief of staff, the most influential position in the House that doesn’t require getting elected, while Anne is director of external affairs. They are also two of the highest paid. At $164,000 a year, Rob Minard has a larger salary than Gov. Gretcher Whitmer, while Anne Minard earns $111,000, according to  disclosures

At the same time, the Minards have also run a side business, a consulting firm named Victor Strategies. An investigation by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network found that since 2015 the firm has been paid nearly $1.1 million by Republican legislators’ campaigns and the PACs connected to them, at times for vaguely-described services or at apparently exorbitant rates.

Rob Minard declined to be interviewed over the phone and did not respond to a list of emailed questions from MCFN.

As Chatifeld and the Minards rose in the ranks of the legislature and caucus staff, respectively, payments to Victor Strategies also increased dramatically. They were paid nearly $500,000 during this election cycle alone. That total will likely be higher after the next campaign finance disclosures are filed in February.

These payments alone are not illegal and do not violate Michigan House ethics rules — simply because there are none. The 1973 law governing the ethics of government employees doesn’t apply to legislative staff, leaving no boundaries that’d prevent senior staff from running a business with paying clients that serve in the body of government where they work.

“This is another example of how Michigan is very unregulated in terms of money in politics and what lawmakers, and in this case legislators staff, are able to do alongside their official positions,” said Austin Graham, an attorney with Campaign Legal Center who focuses on state-level campaign finance.

MCFN interviewed more than a half-dozen consultants and politicos with deep experience in Michigan politics. None could recall legislative staffers operating a full-service political consulting firm anywhere near this scale while simultaneously working in the legislature. Graham said he believes ethics rules would prohibit this kind of arrangement in the U.S. House.

While some policy-oriented staff can work in the legislature for decades and never see the inside of a campaign office, Rob Minard entered the legislature with a background in politics and lobbying. He worked as the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, an advocacy organization underwritten by the DeVos family in the early 2000s, and left to work as Dick DeVos’ field organizer during his 2006 gubernatorial campaign.

Victor Strategies also predates Chatifeld’s legislative career. It was registered in 2011 and had been hired by other candidates prior, but apparently not received much business. In 2014, campaign finance records show that after Victor Strategies consulted for Chatfield’s first campaign for the House, Rob Minard came on as his chief of staff.

During the 2016 election, Victor was employed again, and as Chatfield was elected Speaker Pro Tem of the House, Rob Minard was hired as director of caucus services under then-Speaker Tom Leonard. In a 2017 salary list, Anne Minard was listed as “chief legislative advisor,” and has appeared again with that title in 2019.

Retaining a firm owned by highly-placed legislative staffers may be appealing to those looking for access to legislative leadership. John Lindstrom, who covered state government for decades as publisher of Gongwer News Service, said chiefs of staff can have a “big, big effect on policy decisions.” (Lindstrom also serves on MCFN’s board of directors.)

The chief of staff can often provide access to the Speaker and will have the leader’s ear on any number of important decisions, Lindstrom noted, though it’s important not to overstate their influence.

“You can talk to the leader directly, but very often you're going to end up talking to the chief of staff, and that can be just as important as talking to the leader,” Lindstrom said.

Understanding that access and where legislative leadership stands on a given issue can be particularly valuable. In 2020 Victor Strategies was the second-highest paid firm among legislative candidate committees’ spending categorized as consultation or research — and there’s no way to learn what private-sector clients the firm may have, if any. 

Perhaps predictably, this has not sat well with other longtime consultants in Lansing.  

“I think it’s everything that’s wrong about Lansing, but it’s not illegal,” David Forsmark, the owner of Winning Strategies said. “It’s shocking, really.”

Nearly all the expenses paid to Victor from Chatfield’s campaign and leadership PACs were designated as in-house, implying Victor Strategies did all the work itself. Victor has been paid for doing its own polling, recordkeeping, fundraising, mail advertising, web design and printing, among other services. As a private business, it’s difficult to know whether the company has other employees or an office, but the registered address with the state appears to be the Minards’ home.

Anne Minard is also listed as a board member for two 501(c)(4) nonprofits linked to lawmakers, Peninsula Fund and Lift Up Michigan, organizations which can be used to hide large corporate contributions and don’t have to disclose their contributions and payouts below a certain threshold.

Tom Shields, the president of Marketing Resource Group, left his job as a legislative staffer more than 40 years ago to found his consulting firm and found it rough going at first. He doesn’t find it likely that anyone can fully commit to both pursuits. 

“It’s certainly unfair competition to those of us doing this full-time,” Shields said. “Secondly, you’re serving two masters and neither one is probably getting an adequate job (performance).”

Chatfield himself has been a record-shattering fundraiser. His four leadership PACs have raised at least $4.5 million, thanks in no small part to the Minards, who have managed those PACs along with his House campaigns. Victor Strategies has been paid nearly $350,000 for managing and consulting those committees. At times the firm would pay itself simultaneously from several of them. In 2019 Victor Strategies was paid a $10,000 consulting fee from each of the first two Chatfield Majority Funds on the same day.

A good portion of the payments campaigns made to Victor Strategies were for mail advertisements which make it difficult to have an insight into the firm’s work. But when Victor was paid to run digital ads on Facebook and Google, however, the few reported transactions stand out.

Days before the 2018 election, a leadership PAC connected to Rep. Jim Lilly (R-Holland), Michigan Strategic Leadership Fund, paid Victor Strategies $130,000 to run what it reported as Facebook ads and specified the 13 candidates the ads should support. Through that cycle, Chatfield’s leadership PACs had donated a reported $99,500 to Lilly’s campaign and leadership PAC, and the House Republican Campaign Committee had given an additional $30,000.

Around the same time, 17 ads appeared on the Michigan Strategic Leadership Fund’s Facebook page supporting those same candidates. They featured photos of the candidates, often appearing in identical scenes from a previous photoshoot held by the Republican party, advocating similar messages about car insurance and skilled trades.

Yet according to Facebook’s own disclosures, the page ultimately spent less than $20,000 running the ads, leaving 85% of the money behind the scenes with Victor Strategies.

A similar pattern emerged this year. In October a super PAC funded largely by PACs the Minards manage, Working Together For A Better Michigan, paid Victor Strategies more than $200,000 for “in house digital ads” supporting 11 House Republican candidates. Facebook disclosures report only $139,000 had been spent.

The consultants interviewed by MCFN said their commissions on digital advertising never go above 20%, leaving pertinent questions as to what purpose that excess money had served, aside from a particularly profitable exchange.

When MCFN asked Rob Minard about these payments specifically he did not respond.

The Minards haven’t publicly announced what their plans are for the next legislative sessions, but Anne Minard remains the listed recordkeeper for the leadership PACs attached to the incoming Speaker, Rep. Jason Wentworth (R-Clare), indicating their time at the intersection of political money and the legislature hasn’t come to an end.

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