In Minards’ Wake, A Trail Of Financial Discrepancies

Unreported donations in Chatfield-connected accounts point to a key weakness in Michigan’s campaign finance system.

By SIMON D. SCHUSTER

Michigan Campaign Finance Network

 

LANSING (Feb. 21, 2022) — Police last Tuesday searched the home of Anné and Rob Minard, who were previously close associates and senior staff for former House Speaker Lee Chatfield. 

Allegations of sexual assault levied by Chatfield’s sister-in-law sparked the investigation into the former speaker’s activities. Lansing-area news channel WILX first reported the Michigan State Police were searching the Minards’ home. Subsequent coverage documented investigators emerging with computers, bags of documents and suitcases.

What investigators are after remains undisclosed. Spokesperson Shannon Banner said the search was “in conjunction with the Attorney General’s Office as part of an ongoing investigation,” and declined to offer further details, including whether the search was related to Chatfield. On top of overseeing Chatfield’s political and legislative affairs, the Minards’ Victor Strategies was also paid to maintain the financial records of his political accounts. 

There, as much as $100,000 could be unaccounted for.

MCFN has examined donations reported to five PACs connected to Chatfield and the Minards, identifying at least 24 instances where another PAC reported giving to a Chatfield-connected committee that never reported receiving the contribution.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) first reported in December 2020 on the deep professional and financial ties between Chatfield and the couple, as their political consulting firm Victor Strategies took in more than $1.1 million while at least one of them also worked in the legislature for Chatfield.

Chatfield left a legacy as, among other things, a prodigious fundraiser and these missing transactions represent only a small portion of the more than 1,000 contributions his PACs took in during his tenure. An additional $27,100 was reported by would-be donors as voided checks the PACs simply never cashed. It’s also not clear on whose end all the errors lie, as another 11 times the PACs reported donations their donors did not.

It remains unclear what role, if any, Chatfield played in management of these PACs’ finances. An attorney for Chatfield, Mary Chartier, did not respond to a request for comment. The Minards also didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. One former client of Victor Strategies, who spoke with MCFN on the condition of anonymity, said they would give a list of itemized receipts to Anné Minard who would then enter them into the state’s campaign finance system.

Steve Liedel, an attorney at the firm Dykema Gossett with deep experience in campaign finance, said discrepancies like this aren’t particularly unusual, and most often it’s innocuous mistakes. But not always.

“I would put it in three categories: inadvertent error, incompetence — just incompetent folks not reporting things — and then some sort of intentional malice,” Liedel said. “The question is, is there a system in place to sort of provide a check or catch any of those? And I think, from a public policy perspective, the answer is no.”

 

Unreported, Unnoticed

None of these one-sided transactions, which were reported over 5 years’ time and involved 18 different committees, were ever flagged by the department’s Bureau of Elections.

It underscores how the Michigan Department of State, the agency tasked with enforcing Michigan’s campaign finance law, has only limited ability to ensure the filings it receives are accurate.

MCFN presented this finding to four campaign finance professionals in Michigan. None of them found it egregious, though all considered the volume notable. Committees regularly fail to report money going in or out of their accounts, they said, and all agreed on one thing: if it remains unreported, there are rarely any consequences for it.

The department doesn’t have the resources, or even the mandate, to police whether the numbers line up when money changes hands between PACs in Michigan’s campaign finance system.

Tracy Wimmer, spokesperson for the department, said that while the department may contact committees about surface errors, the department doesn’t go hunting for mismatched transactions on its own.

“If it's not outright obvious, then a complaint is needed to trigger an investigation of something like that,” Wimmer said, referring to the formal complaint that must be filed before the department will begin closely examining a PAC’s finances.

Aaron McKean, an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center focusing on state and local issues, was troubled by the department’s position.

“It just strikes me as an issue of ensuring that the agency is actually empowered to enforce the laws it's charged with enforcing,” McKean said. “They aren’t if they are stuck in this reactive position where they have to react to a complaint every time, that's gonna slow down enforcement.”

Ascertaining what became of the money is crucial to the role of a campaign finance agency, McKean told MCFN, because it affirms to citizens that "public officials are working in the public interest and not just using leadership PACs as a slush fund to line their pockets or the pockets of their friends.”

On a campaign finance report, a forgotten donation and a pocketed donation can look identical, namely because both can be unreported in the first place.

Brett McCrae, who owns the business Campaign Finance Services, works as a record-keeper and treasurer for numerous PACs. In an interview with MCFN, he couldn’t recall a single instance of the department asking about a potentially unreported donation on their own initiative.

“If you don’t have any supervision over the person that’s running the money,” McCrae said, taking from a PAC becomes “very easy.”

McCrae told MCFN that “embezzlement in political committees is not that uncommon,” but if an unreported donation is discovered later on, “what you should do when you find out is file an amended report that includes it.”

Chatfield’s first and largest leadership PAC has not amended a campaign finance filing since 2017. Others have been changed to include small adjustments.

A client of Eric Doster, another campaign finance attorney, was recently fined for missing an old contribution — but only after Doster found the client’s mistake and reported it with an updated filing. He complained the current approach is “selective.”

“I thought that was kind of unfair, but my client just wanted to dissolve (the committee) and go away, so we didn't fight it,” Doster told MCFN. If he hadn’t reported the problem himself, Doster said, “I don’t know how they’d ever know … I do blame the department when people self-report like in the situation I was referring to, we get beat up for it.”

But both Doster and Liedel said the department largely isn’t responsible for the current state of affairs. They pointed to antiquated technology and limited funding as major constraints on their ability to hold PACs accountable.

There’s no requirement in Michigan’ campaign finance law that the amount a committee reports in a campaign finance filing and in its bank account are the same. Liedel said most folks don’t even attempt to keep the two aligned.

“I think my experience is most often they throw up their hands. It's too complicated,” Liedel said. “It's like, ‘eh, close enough for government work.’”

At the local level, county clerks don’t even have access to the aged software state committees can use to file campaign finance reports online. Outside Michigan’s largest counties, filings are often handwritten, making effective oversight a herculean task many offices are ill-equipped to attempt.

 

Enduring Ties

The Minards continue to have paying clients in the legislature and a major PAC connected to the Minards and Chatfield remains active, called Working Together For A Better Michigan.

In late 2020 it received more than $1.2 million from Chatfield’s leadership PACs, at least $880,000 of which was provided by a national group, the Republican State Leadership Committee.

At the same time, it was reportedly given $50,000 from the leadership PAC of Rep. Jim Lilly (R-Park Twp.), a close ally of both Chatfield and the Minards. Working Together never disclosed the donation. More than a year later, Lilly’s PAC, Michigan Strategic Leadership Fund, reported receiving $19,250 back from Working Together, which again didn’t report the purported expense. Lilly did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Chatfield’s leadership PACs and Working Together have combined paid more than $440,000 to Victor Strategies. Working Together didn’t report spending any money on recordkeeping, but the PAC is registered to Anné Minard’s sister, Shannon Huver, according to her Facebook profile. Huver didn’t respond to an interview request.

During Chatfield’s final year in office, a nonprofit connected to him called Peninsula Fund made a $85,000 grant to a nonprofit registered to the Minards, called Lift Up Michigan, according to tax filings obtained by MCFN and first reported by The Detroit News.

On Jan. 20, 32 days ago, MCFN made a request in writing to the Minards for the documents Lift Up Michigan must make publicly available under IRS rules. Organizations generally have 30 days to respond to these requests. MCFN has yet to receive a response.

MCFN also found the two leadership PACs for current House Speaker Jason Wentworth (R-Clare), for which Anné Minard acted as treasurer until recently are also misaligned, only his PACs more frequently reporting larger numbers than what donors claim to have given. Though those PACs still had some mismatched records, a source close to the speaker told MCFN the filings received additional review before they were filed.

The Minards are posted to potentially remain close to future Republican leadership in the legislature, and there appears to be financial benefits for the relationship.

Last October, Working Together reported paying $16,250 to the leadership PAC of former Rep. Brandt Iden, a close ally of the Minards and Chatfield. Within a week, that amount had been passed on, half each to the leadership PACs for Rep. Matt Hall (R-Marshall), who is vying to be speaker of the House and Sen. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton), a contender to be Senate majority leader.

Both are clients of Victor Strategies. The Nesbitt Majority Fund paid Victor Strategies nearly $27,000 throughout 2021, the most of any PAC. Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford), who also reportedly has leadership aspirations, pays Victor Strategies for recordkeeping.


 

Tags
Lee Chatfield Rob Minard Anne Minard Victor Strategies Brandt Iden Jim Lilly Campaign Finance Dark Money