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Michigan Gov. Whitmer may have to return or donate millions in contributions

Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has faced at least seven recall attempts against her.

Oct. 25: Whitmer blows past donor limits, raises more than 9 GOP candidates combined

LANSING — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's campaign must return or donate as much as $3.4 million in excess contributions before the 2022 election if the long-shot recalls targeting her fail, according to fellow Democratic state officials.

That would dent the $10 million war chest that Whitmer's campaign had accrued through late July. But the Michigan Democratic Party or other allies may still benefit from the money.

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The Michigan Republican Party, in a September lawsuit, accused Whitmer of misusing a longstanding "recall exception" to blow by donor limits and benefit her re-election campaign.

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In arguing the case should be dismissed, Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office this week wrote that Whitmer will not be able "to keep or use any excess contributions for her re-election effort." 

At issue is the Whitmer's campaign's decision to seek and accept contributions exceeding the usual legal limit of $7,150 per individual donor because the governor has been the subject of multiple recall filings related to her COVID-19 orders and other issues. 

As of July 20, Whitmer’s campaign had collected excess contributions from more than 150 individual donors, including $257,150 from University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein, and $250,000 from Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Since at least 1983, Michigan has exempted officials from contribution limits if they are facing an active recall campaign. And there have been no shortage of recall attempts against Whitmer: Critics have filed paperwork for at least seven recall attempts since June 2020. 

Bridge Michigan has reported that other governors who faced recalls in the past 25 years did not use the loophole to exceed donation limits.

In a federal court filing, Assistant Attorney General Erik Grill wrote the governor's campaign will have to return or "disgorge" the excess contributions (by donating them to "a party or charity," for instance) if critics are unable to actually collect enough voter signatures to force a recall election.

Grill cited an interpretation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act by the Department of State, which is headed by Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. 

The filing suggests Whitmer's campaign may still be able to transfer the excess contributions to the Michigan Democratic Party or another allied nonprofit. And state law seems to confirm that is an option. 

The Michigan GOP, however, pledged to continue fighting against what it called Whitmer’s "illegally raised funds.” 

Spokesperson Gustavo Portelo accused the Democratic governor of "claiming a recall exception for a recall that does not exist."

"We’ll fight in court to ensure that campaign finance rules continue to be applied fairly across the board for all candidates running for governor because no one is above the law," Portela said in a statement.

Whitmer’s campaign has said it is following the law. And Nessel’s court filing “confirms” that, said Whitmer campaign spokesperson Maeve Coyle. 

"The MI GOP continues to attack Gov. Whitmer in every way they can think of, including recall efforts and frivolous lawsuits,” she said in a statement. “The campaign will continue to fight back attempts to attack the governor while following the guidelines set by precedent."

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