Keeping Them Honest

Jun 14, 2011

Maurice Kelman ought to be feeling proud today, For years, the retired Wayne State law professor has been waging a lonely battle to get Michigan to enforce what weak campaign finance laws we have.

Specifically, he’s been focusing on the case of one Kwame Kilpatrick, who needs no introduction. Kelman discovered two years ago that the felonious ex-mayor used nearly a million dollars from his campaign fund to pay the lawyers who were trying to keep him out of prison during the text messaging scandal.

The professor happens to be an expert on election law, and he knows that was wrong, that campaign funds aren’t supposed to be used for personal expenses. He went to then-Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, and asked for an opinion on what was happening.

To put it politely, she blew him off. Eventually, after the case attracted some media attention, I asked Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox for an opinion. He said he could only give one if an elected official were to ask. Finally, my state senator did.

Eventually, Cox issued a convoluted, long opinion saying that what Kilpatrick did was wrong, but it was up to the Secretary of State to do something about it. Well, there’s a new secretary of state now.

And on this matter, Ruth Johnson clearly is far more decisive than her predecessor. She now says what the ex-mayor did was illegal, and is asking for him to be fined nearly a million dollars, a sum equal to the amount he improperly paid his lawyers.

Whether the state ever gets that money is unclear, given that Kilpatrick is sitting in jail and now faces many more federal charges.

But it’s the principle of the thing, and this highlights how badly this state needs campaign finance reform in a wide range of areas, Coincidentally, a new report has just arrived spelling all this out.

The non-profit, non-partisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network hase just issued a study called”$70 Million Dollars Hidden in Plain view.” It documents the distressing truth that not only are special interests heavily spending to influence political campaigns, much of the time, we don’t even know where the money is coming from.

More and more campaign spending is done in the form of television ads paid for by anonymous groups of donors. This is something our elected representatives could easily fix. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that a state can require full disclosure of who is giving what to whom, or for which issues.

But Michigan politicians have refused to require accountability. It’s clear why; the special interests that give money to the politicians have no interest in having what they do exposed.

Unless that changes, the only hope may be a citizen-led ballot initiative. By the way, the Campaign Finance Network’s report is short, succinct, and easy to read. Easy, that is, unless you mind being made angry. It ends this way:

“The challenge is political courage. 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. Now, the question is, what will the citizens do about it?

Looks to me like the ball is in our court.