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Nonprofit tied to Mike Shirkey probed for funneling money to Unlock Michigan

 Mike Shirkey
Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, is tied to a nonprofit that helped raise most of the money for the Unlock Michigan ballot measure. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

LANSING — Two conservative nonprofits may have broken the law by failing to disclose funds to support Unlock Michigan, a ballot initiative adopted by the Legislature last year that repealed the governor’s pandemic emergency powers, the Secretary of State’s office has found.

The agency, led by Democrat Jocelyn Benson, has referred the case to the office of fellow Democrat, Attorney General Dana Nessel, which has begun a review, a spokesperson said Monday. 

Sponsor

Michigan! My Michigan! — a 501(c)(4) group tied to state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake — and the nonprofit Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility appear to have solicited more than $2 million in donations for Unlock Michigan while keeping their donors in secret, according to a state finding released Friday.

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The finding follows a complaint from former longtime GOP strategist Bob LaBrant and former Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer, who allege the two “dark money” groups should have registered as ballot measure committees that would have had to disclose more information about their finances.

“Shirkey’s scheme involved the illegal use of dark money on a scale never before seen in Michigan as millions of dollars in dark money was raised and spent,” LaBrant and Brewer argued in the complaint.

Craig Ryan, Shirkey’s former chief of staff, served as a board member of Michigan! My Michigan! Shirkey has also raised money for the ballot initiative, The Detroit News reported. The group received almost $1 million in undisclosed donations in 2020.

Representatives of the nonprofits contend they complied with state law — and blasted the decision to refer it to Nessel’s office as political.

“We are looking forward to defending these baseless accusations and bringing to light the Secretary of State’s decision to put politics ahead of the law,” said Heather Lombardini,  president and director of Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility and treasurer of Michigan! My Michigan!

“We remain committed to discussing potential resolution if and when the Secretary of State realizes that facts, the law and democracy should always prevail over political ambitions," Lombardini said.

She noted the Secretary of State dismissed a similar complaint from LaBrant in 2020 about five contributions to Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility. At the time, the state deemed the evidence in LaBrant’s complaint “insufficient,” records show.

The two nonprofits together gave  $2.3 million to Unlock Michigan — almost 90 percent of the petition group’s funding — during the 2020 election cycle, state records show. Neither of the groups had that much money at the beginning of 2020, suggesting they could have raised the funds specifically for Unlock Michigan, according to an Oct. 27, 2020, letter by Adam Fracassi, regulatory section manager at Michigan Bureau of Elections. 

The nonprofits made 15 payments to Unlock Michigan in 2020. Soon thereafter, the ballot committee made a total of 11 payments to signature gatherers for the effort — suggesting  “a level of coordination” with the nonprofits, Fracassi said. 

Sponsor

While coordination between nonprofits and ballot committees is not illegal, Fracassi said it is a violation of campaign finance laws to “raise money on behalf of the ballot question committee in order to shield the organization’s donors from the reporting requirements.”

He noted the Secretary of State referred the case to the Attorney General when the nonprofits would not turn over tax forms that would detail their spending.

LaBrant said in a statement the ruling means that dark money groups “need to think twice before attempting to hide the true identities of ballot question donors by laundering them through their coffers.”

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