By SIMON D. SCHUSTER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
UPDATE, April 15, 2022: The business of Republican gubernatorial candidate Perry Johnson was among the contributors to True Michigan PAC, FEC filings disclosed today.
Consultant John Yob, who is working for the campaigns of both Johnson and and Leonard’s rival Matthew DePerno, also contributed. Johnson endorsed DePerno in early March.
True Michigan received a little more than $177,000 through the end of last month. Johnson and Yob’s contributions made up $30,700 of that total.
Despite the PAC’s name, $71,700 of their total fundraising came from donors and businesses in Florida — more than they received from Michigan residents — relatively close to the time DePerno and Johnson had attended a fundraiser at former President Donald Trump’s club Mar-a-Lago. Yob listed a Michigan address but also lives in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
While super PACs are often conduits for dark money, they can also receive unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations. The filings disclosed the major GOP political consulting firm Majority Strategies had been paid for the mailing.
LANSING (Mar. 30, 2022) — True Michigan PAC, run by Ohio political consultants using a mailbox just outside Washington, DC, is trying to influence the votes of Republican delegates in Michigan’s attorney general race.
The super PAC has been sending mail to the homes of potential Republican delegates who may vote to decide the party’s picks for attorney general and secretary of state.
They offer an invitation to join attorney general candidate Matt DePerno and former President Donald Trump for “RINO hunting” — Republicans In Name Only — in particular DePerno’s opponent Tom Leonard. Another claims Leonard supports Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, who’s labeled a “stooge” for endorsing now-President Joe Biden in 2020.
It marks the entry of national political operatives wielding dark money in a state where Trump, who endorsed DePerno, is pointedly looking to demonstrate his continued influence over the party. The mailings essentially reiterate what Trump himself wrote in a letter to delegates last month.
Some delegates haven’t enjoyed the appeals. Izzy Lyman, the former chair of the Emmet County Republican Party, received a litany of mail supporting Leonard from a nonprofit called A Better Michigan Tomorrow. She feels the anonymity behind the ads is harmful to the party.
“The lack of transparency is extremely troubling, as one does not know the 'end game' of this group which has the means to send the slick, expensive mailers,” she told MCFN in an email. “Will the politician who benefits from this dark money and gets the nomination nod and possibly gets elected be beholden to the special interests over the voters?”
The mailings are flying because the selection of each party’s nominees for statewide office in November, excluding the Governor’s race, is left up to the party faithful.
Several thousand precinct delegates and party members will informally choose the Republican party’s picks at an endorsement convention April 23. It’s something new for Michigan Republicans and is intended to consolidate support around party choices earlier in the campaign season. Final nominations will still happen in August.
True Michigan PAC, which registered with the state in February, has little public information. Their address in Alexandria, Virginia references a suite but is actually a post office box at a Parcel Plus store.
On the PAC’s federal Election Commission filing there is an email for feccompliancegroup.com. Earlier this year, FEC Compliance Group had been briefly adopted as an alternate name for Clark Fork Group, LLC, an opaque firm connected to the political consultants and lobbyists Joel Riter and Tom Norris. Riter is also registered as the owner of the domain.
Both Riter and Norris are connected to a large network of dark money organizations which has elicited FEC complaints from watchdogs over their tactics. The reason behind their involvement in Michigan’s attorney general race and who might’ve hired them is wholly unknown. Neither returned requests for an interview.
There are other connections to the operatives and Michigan dark money: two of the nonprofits they oversee, Jobs & Progress Fund Inc. and A Public Voice Inc., received a total of $975,000 in 2018 from Michigan Citizens For Fiscal Responsibility, a major Republican dark money fund.
Given that super PACs can’t directly coordinate with campaigns, DePerno’s camp has little control over True Michigan PAC’s messaging. Tyson Shepard, DePerno’s campaign manager, readily admits DePerno calls Leonard a RINO, but emphasized their appeals to delegates have focused on the candidate, not attacking opponents.
Created last September, mail from the nonprofit A Better Michigan Tomorrow is praising Leonard on issues central to conservatives, placed next to other candidates that have endorsed him. The organization’s P.O. Box in Grand Rapids is linked to GOP consultant Scott Greenlee, who did not return MCFN’s requests for an interview.
Chris Arndt has been a precinct delegate for more than a decade. While he said dark money mail before a convention is nothing new, this is the highest volume of anonymous mail he’s received in such a short period of time.
The Washington Examiner wrote Thursday morning that an ad attacking DePerno had begun airing exclusively in the media market covering Trump’s club Mar-a-Lago in Florida and appears to appeal directly to the former president. The ad says DePerno “failed” Trump by not making more progress in his investigation of election fraud conspiracy theories.
“The Republicans need a winner running for Michigan attorney general, not a grifting loser like Matt DePerno,” the ad concludes.
The dark money nonprofit which paid for the ad, Integrity and Honor Fund, was registered in Delaware on March 18. It will be more than a year before it has to file any returns with the Internal Revenue Service.
Jason Roe, former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, is close to Leonard and doesn’t mask his contempt for DePerno. Though not a delegate, he’s also received the mailings attacking Leonard, raising questions about their scope.
“It's completely counterproductive,” Roe said in an interview. “I mean, it defeats the purpose of what we were hoping to accomplish by nominating the best candidate to go against incumbent statewide Democrats.”
Because the endorsement convention has no legal repercussions for the election — candidates who aren’t endorsed could keep campaigning for the party’s nomination in August — advocacy around it is largely exempt from Michigan campaign finance rules. The first campaign finance filing deadline for True Michigan PAC is four days after county conventions, April 15.
The Michigan Democratic Party’s nominees are a certainty, incumbent Attorney General and Secretary of State Dana Nessel and Jocelyn Benson, respectively. Their party’s endorsement convention is slated for April 9.
Statewide candidates won’t next disclose their campaign finances until August, though many have been spending considerable sums to woo party insiders. Mark Brewer, the former chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, said the April endorsement conventions began under his tenure.
“One of the goals of these conventions is to kind of unify the party,” he said. “Slash and burn tactics don't contribute to that.”
Despite the mailing’s factionalism, Michigan Republican Party spokesperson Gustavo Portela put a positive spin on the communications.
“With outside groups coming into Michigan, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that Democrats up and down the ballot are incredibly vulnerable and will lose in November,” Portela said in a statement. “The party looks forward to uniting behind our endorsed candidates post-convention and fighting hard to get Republicans elected everywhere because Michiganders are feeling the squeeze from Democrat policies and they can’t afford four more years of them.”