A political group advocating for now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer during her campaign has agreed to pay a $37,500 settlement and close down after Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson found that it violated state campaign finance law.
Build a Better Michigan agreed to pay the fine and dissolve within 60 days after Benson’s office alleged the group violated the Michigan Campaign Finance Act by advocating for Whitmer during her campaign for governor. Benson characterized two TV ads that aired before the Aug. 7 gubernatorial primary as “express advocacy” for Whitmer, although the group considered them issue ads.
In Michigan, issue ads do not have to be disclosed under state campaign finance law.
The videos were part of an advertising push worth millions, according to the complaint filed by the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund complaint. Build a Better Michigan spent more than $2.4 million in 2018, federal disclosure reports show.
An investigation into the advertisements began under former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, a Republican, after the Freedom Fund issued complaints.
Benson, who, like Whitmer, is a Democrat, wrote the two ads contained language that “constitutes express advocacy” in a letter dated Tuesday to legal counsel Graham Wilson and Whitmer’s campaign committee. The Secretary of State also said the finding is “critical to promoting greater transparency.”
She wrote in the letter, “I believe a reasonable person viewing the advertisement in question in its entirety would likely conclude that it expressly advocates for the election of the identified candidate. As such, it is my determination that the advertisements at question in this complaint advocated for the election of a clearly identified candidate using express words of advocacy,” as defined in state law.
Build a Better Michigan deny any alleged wrongdoing, but agreed to the settlement.
“Build a Better Michigan’s advertising is part of a long tradition of issue advocacy used for years in Michigan by both parties and we’re proud to have played a role promoting affordable health care, improved infrastructure and clean water,” said Mark Fisk, spokesman for the group. “While we respectfully disagree with the Secretary of State’s determination and settlement, we fully intend to comply with her ruling to put this matter behind us and move forward.”
Whitmer’s communications director, Zach Pohl, declined to comment.
But Republicans and a conservative group are criticizing the fine as being too light. Michigan GOP spokesman Tony Zammit said it constitutes 2 percent of what the group spent on “illegal ads.” He again bashed Benson for alleged “backroom” deals, something Republicans alleged during a federal lawsuit claiming gerrymandering in Michigan’s redistricting process.
“After only one month in office, Jocelyn Benson’s partisanship has destroyed the credibility of the office of Secretary of State as a fair and impartial referee in our elections,” Zammit said. “Today, Benson cut yet another backroom deal which bails out her buddy, Governor Whitmer, to the tune of millions of dollars. This shameful settlement sets a dangerous precedent on how Michigan’s campaigns will be financed in the future.”
The Michigan Freedom Fund called the fine a “slap on the wrist” in a statement released Friday.
Secretary of State spokesman Shawn Starkey said Benson’s interpretation of the law “will serve as a precedent that furthers and promotes transparency in our elections.”