Michigan attorney general wants the Legislature to crack down on dark money - TAI News
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Attorney General Dana Nessel’s comments come after her department’s investigation into allegations of corruption and sexual assault against the state’s former speaker of the House.

Matt Cohen

Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative in November to amend the state’s Constitution to require state lawmakers to disclose their finances. Until it takes effect next year, Michigan remains one of only two statesin the country that don’t require lawmakers to do so, leaving constituents in the dark about any state lawmaker’s potential financial conflicts of interest.

In an interview with MLive, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said she wants the state Legislature to go even further by passing campaign finance reforms that would increase transparency and potentially expose the network of dark money that’s pervasive in Michigan politics.

“I came into this job thinking that the influence of dark money was substantial and corrosive to government,” Nessel said. “My opinion of that now is perhaps ten-fold of what it was when I came into office.”

Nessel’s comments come on the heels of an investigation her office is leading into Lee Chatfield, the former Republican speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives. Chatfield’s term as speaker ended in early 2021, and he was ineligible to run again due to term limit rules. In early 2022, Michigan police launched an investigation into allegations that Chatfield had sexually abused an underage girl. In the course of that investigation, law enforcement found evidence that Chatfield had potentially engaged in a “criminal enterprise,” and he is now being investigated for embezzlement, bribery, and campaign finance violations.

In the wake of the allegations against Chatfield, Bridge Michigan found that the Peninsula Fund, a nonprofit entity linked to him, spent nearly $500,000 on food and travel for the ex-lawmaker in 2020. But because of Michigan’s laws, Chatfield didn’t have to disclose any information about his donors, travel, or expenses.

Michigan’s representatives to the U.S. Congress are required to disclose their finances under federal campaign finance law, but state lawmakers aren’t subject to those requirements. Instead, states set their own campaign finance laws and ethics rules for elections and lawmakers.

When the amendment approved by the voters goes into effect in April 2024, state lawmakers will be required to provide a description of their assets and debts, membership in any organizations, gifts from lobbyists, and sources of earned and unearned income. But the proposal language doesn’t specify how detailed the description should be, essentially leaving it up to the individual lawmaker to determine what’s appropriate. Furthermore, the ballot language doesn’t impose any restrictions on lawmakers based on any conflicts of interest, meaning a lawmaker could still vote for or introduce a bill that directly benefits them.

Nessel isn’t the only Michigan official to call for more transparency in the state’s campaign finance laws. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, whose office is responsible for administering elections, said in a recent interview with MLive that the state is long overdue for campaign finance ethics reforms. “For far too long, lawmakers in our state have operated under the cloak of secrecy with very little transparency requirements,” she said.

Benson praised the ballot initiative that will finally require state lawmakers to file financial disclosures, but said it doesn’t go far enough.

“As a result of decades of inaction, on both lobbying laws and campaign finance laws and ethics laws in our state, we are far, far, far behind the basic median levels that many other states are already at,” she said.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

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The Michigan Independent is a project of American Independent Media, a 501(c)(4) organization whose mission is to use journalism to educate the public, giving them the information they need about local and federal issues.