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‘Sleazy payoff’ claim rocks Michigan GOP ahead of convention election

LANSING — The outgoing chair of the Michigan Republican Party is accusing her presumed successor of fraud and is trying to block his election, upending the race just two days before the convention. 

GOP Chair Laura Cox told supporters in a Thursday email there is “clear evidence” Ron Weiser made a “secret deal” to get Shelby Township Clerk Stan Grot to drop out of the 2018 race for Michigan Secretary of State, clearing the path for Mary Treder Lang to win the GOP nomination.

Citing an internal investigation, Cox claimed Grot was paid $200,000 over seven months from the Michigan Republican Party’s administrative account while Weiser was serving as GOP chair, a position he is again seeking. 

She called it a “sleazy payoff.”

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Reached by phone Thursday morning, Weiser went silent when a Bridge Michigan reporter identified himself. The wealthy real estate magnate, University of Michigan regent and GOP mega donor did not respond to a follow-up text message seeking comment.

But in a subsequent statement, Weiser called the accusations a “desperate attempt to smear” his name and suggested Cox was motivated by a “longstanding political grudge.” 

“I’m disappointed by Laura’s shameful attempt to destroy our party with unfounded and reckless conspiracy theories so that she can get back in the chair’s race and save her paycheck,” Weiser said. ‘We must focus on our party and our future.”

Cox announced last month that she would not seek re-election, leaving Weiser and his controversial co-chair Meshawn Maddock as the only candidates to take over the party following a controversial election cycle capped by former President Donald Trump’s false fraud claims and refusal to accept his loss. 

But Cox remains on the ballot for Saturday’s convention and is now asking supporters to re-elect her on a “temporary basis.” If elected, Cox said she would resign effective April 3, at which point the GOP’s state committee could choose her successor. Party bylaws would allow the committee to elect a chair if a vacancy occurs, she said. 

“If you think what Ron did is okay, then vote for him,” Cox wrote. “If you don’t want backroom deals and secret payoffs, then vote for me. The choice is clear.”

As chair of the Michigan GOP, Cox said she had hired former Judge Jon Lauderback, an attorney with Warner Norcross & Judd, to investigate the payments in question. 

Three days after he dropped out of the Secretary of State race, the Michigan GOP paid Grot the first of six $10,000 installments from the party’s administrative account, according to Cox. 

He received another lump sum of $140,000 two weeks before Weiser relinquished the party to Cox in early 2019, Cox claimed.

Grot did not immediately respond to a voicemail seeking comment. But he told The Detroit News, which first reported on the Cox email, that the allegations are “nonsense.” 

Grot said he was paid for work he did for the party.

In his Thursday statement, Weiser claimed that Grot helped the state party organize “record turnout” in Macomb County and said his work was performed under a contract drafted by GOP attorneys. 

Cox later appointed Grot as chair of the state party’s budget committee, Weiser said, “putting him in charge of the party’s finances” and “undermining her entire assertion.”

Lauderbach, in a Jan. 15 report prepared at Cox’s request, said Weiser had denied any wrongdoing and believed the investigation was “politically motivated” to help Cox win re-election as party chair. 

“They've known about this for two years,” Weiser told the former judge according to the report, so “why didn't they do this before?”

In her email, Cox said she first confronted Weiser about the payments in the spring of 2019 and regrets “not taking action sooner.” 

She said Grot “did not do any documented work” to justify the $200,000 in payments, which is more than he earns annually as Shelby Township clerk. 

Grot withdrew from the Michigan Secretary of State race in August of 2018, saying “family obligations, timing and the overall political atmosphere” made it difficult for him to continue his campaign. Lang secured the GOP nomination but went on to lose to current Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat.

Cox suggested the administrative account payments to Grot could be deemed a violation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act by the party, Weiser or Grot – a claim fellow Republicans said was an open invitation for Benson to launch an investigation. 

“This is deeply troubling,” Jason Watts, a prominent west Michigan GOP activist wrote on Twitter. “To undermine our SoS nominee by executing an illegal transfer of Party administrative funds hurts our Party, our candidates, & our brand.”

In a separate tweet, GOP consultant John Yob called Cox a “sore loser” and accused her of being “disgusting, pathetic, desperate for a paycheck.”

It’s not clear if Cox’s late claims can derail Weiser’s election, especially given the unique dynamics of Saturday’s state party convention, which will be conducted remotely via streaming video on account of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Weiser had pressured Cox to drop out of the race by lining up a significant number of endorsements early in the year. 

However, some traditional Republicans have expressed concerns over his partnership with Maddock, a major Trump activist who spoke at “stop the steal” rallies prior to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. 

“Without the in-person campaigning that typically occurs at conventions, this may be too late to work,” Republican consultant Dennis Lennox said of the Cox maneuver. But if it does work, and the party’s state committee is empowered to select a replacement, “she may have just elected Meshawn Maddock as chair unless someone like John James, Terri Lynn Land or Bill Schuette steps forward to unite the party,” he said. 

Weiser also is facing calls to resign as regent at the University of Michigan for declining to blame Trump for the Capitol riots. He told Bridge Michigan last month he was watching a basketball game and missed the insurrection. 

In recent weeks, he’s  also faced backlash for reportedly sending fellow regents a picture of a bikini-clad woman and comparing calls for his resignation to “Germany in the 1930’s.”

“Their issues are not about anything I have done or said only about being a Republican Leader and not saying exactly what they want me to say (it varies with some of them actually saying I’m anti-Semitic),” Weiser wrote in a Jan. 17 email to U-M regents, urging their support. 

“It might be nice if part or all of my fellow Board Members say something about my service or largess to the University. Silence has historical consequences. Remember Germany in the 1930’s.”

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