Commentary: Changing the Law

Jun 20, 2012

There was a lot of news last week, from Detroit escaping near-bankruptcy to the now infamous “vagina dialogues” in the Michigan Legislature. Not to mention the passage of a controversial abortion bill, and the announcement of the new Detroit River Bridge. During weeks like that, some things get overlooked.

One of them was that while all this was going on, the legislature quietly and unanimously passed a bill to prevent any other crooked politician from doing one thing Kwame Kilpatrick did.

The lawmakers voted unanimously to prohibit politicians or officeholders facing criminal charges from paying their lawyers with their campaign finance funds.  The bill was sponsored by State Representative Marty Knollenberg of the Detroit suburb of Troy.

But it should properly be named the Maurice Kelman act, after a retired law professor who for three years, has tried to get state officials to do something about this blatant abuse.

More than four years ago, when the full nature of the former Detroit Mayor corruption began to be known, Maury suspected that he was using campaign funds to pay the high-priced lawyers he was hiring. He thought that ought to be illegal.

Now Kelman was not just a naïve academic. He had been a special counsel to Detroit Mayor Jerry Cavanagh back in the 1960s. He asked then-Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land for some guidance.

She wouldn’t respond. After more than a year, he got a somewhat rude letter from a minor bureaucrat saying they weren’t going to give him any opinion on the matter.

Attorney General Mike Cox told him he couldn‘t comment unless he had a request from an elected official. Finally, at my request, my state senator formally asked the attorney general. He told her using campaign funds to pay your criminal defense lawyers was wrong.

But even though Cox was the state’s top lawyer, he said it was up to the secretary of state to do something about it.

Nothing then happened until last year, when Ruth Johnson, the new secretary of state became interested in the case. Exactly a year ago, she asked for a fine equivalent to the near-million Kilpatrick paid his lawyers. The case was given to an administrative law judge, who, in February assessed a fine of a mere $11,000. So far as I can determine, the ex-mayor, who still owes the city nearly a million bucks, and who is facing serious federal charges, hasn’t paid a dime.

But at least thanks to what should be named the Kelman law, the next person to use campaign funds to pay criminal defense lawyers could be looking at jail time and a fine equaling how much was spent. A year ago, you might have said “C’mon. How long do you think it is going to be before we see that kind of corruption again?” Well, since then we’ve had the ongoing Wayne County mess, not to mention the national trial of John Edwards.

Had Maury Kelman not embarked on his lonely crusade, I think crooked Michigan politicians would still be able to use money people donated to what they thought were honest campaigns to try to keep themselves out of jail. So dedicated citizens can still make a difference. They just have to keep working at it.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.