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Published: Friday, 6/17/2011

COMMENTARY

Michigan slow to enforce campaign-finance rules

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

If you need proof that Michigan needs both campaign-finance reform and officials who are willing to enforce the law, consider this: For two years, retired Wayne State University law professor Maurice Kelman waged a lonely battle to get the state to enforce one of its few campaign finance laws.

He wasn't taking on major corporate interests or going after a sitting governor. Instead, he had found clear evidence that one of the most reviled personalities in state history -- former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick -- had flagrantly misused campaign funds.

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson finally has asked for a massive fine against Kilpatrick, a convicted felon. What's appalling is that it took two years, which raises the question: How many other violations go undiscovered and unpunished?

In this case, the outrage was exposed because, while Mr. Kelman may be retired, he still cares about the city, understands the state constitution, and thinks the law ought to mean something.

Two years ago, he discovered that Kilpatrick had used nearly $1 million from his campaign fund to pay the lawyers who were trying to keep him out of prison during his text-messaging scandal. Mr. Kelman, now 75, is an expert on state constitutional law and had been an adviser to the late Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh. He knew what Kilpatrick had done was improper.

"Campaign finance money cannot be used for personal expenses," he told me. "It certainly is improper to use it to pay a politician's criminal defense lawyers in a charge unrelated to official duties."

He wrote to then-Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land and asked for an opinion. After more than a year, a minor bureaucrat replied in a letter that Ms. Land's office wasn't even going to comment, apparently because Mr. Kelman was a mere private citizen.

So Wayne Country Clerk Cathy Garrett asked for the opinion. Eventually, she got a letter from a subordinate that was so garbled that Ms. Garrett, exasperated, concluded that the secretary of state's office "failed to rule on whether the campaign finance law explicitly or implicitly prohibits" what Kilpatrick did.

I asked then-state Attorney General Mike Cox for a ruling, but he said his opinion had to be requested by an elected official. Then-state Sen. Gilda Jacobs (D., Huntington Woods) did exactly that. After some months, Mr. Cox finally said that what Kilpatrick did was wrong, but it was up to the secretary of state to do something about it. Nothing happened.

Until last week. Mr. Kelman sent information to the new secretary of state, Ms. Johnson. On June 10, she promptly asked for a fine of $976,494 -- the amount the ex-mayor paid his attorneys in an ultimately failed quest to keep him out of jail.

"Well, yes, I feel vindicated, but I can't believe it took so long," Mr. Kelman said. "The matter isn't over, of course."

Ms. Johnson's request will now go before an administrative law judge, who will eventually rule on the fine.

Even if the judge imposes the fine, there's still a question about whether the state will ever see the money. Kilpatrick is in prison now and faces a long list of federal charges as well.

"If he is assessed the fine, this isn't something he can get rid of by going through bankruptcy court," Mr. Kelman said. "He should have to pay, someday."

That remains to be seen. But it's abundantly clear that the rule would never have been enforced, even belatedly, without the persistence of one elderly Michiganian who still cares about the state constitution and the rule of law.

Though it took years for state officials to act on one of Michigan's few campaign-finance rules, the real scandal may be how little campaign-finance regulation there is.

This week, the nonpartisan, nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network released a report -- "$70 Million Hidden in Plain View" -- that details what it describes as "Michigan's spectacular failure of campaign finance disclosure from 2000 to 2010."

Rich Robinson, the report's author and the network's executive director, said the main problem is a lack of accountability. Special-interest groups use ad hoc names to pour millions into campaigns in an effort to sway voters. Under Michigan law, they cannot be compelled to disclose who their donors are.

Requiring full disclosure is clearly constitutional, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year. For Michigan to change the law to do so, Mr. Robinson said, would be "a simple fix to restore integrity."

"The challenge is political courage," he said. "Will elected officials of the term-limits era stand with citizens against the interest groups who pay their way to the big dance in Lansing?

"So far, the answer … is no," he concluded. "The question is, what will the citizens do about it?

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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