Build a Better Michigan will have to pay a $37,500 fine after Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson determined Friday that the nonprofit organization violated campaign laws with advertisements run in support of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Build a Better Michigan was formed by Whitmer allies, and spent more than $2.4 million in the 2018 election. The group ran a series of ads they described as “issue advocacy,” exempting them from the Michigan Finance Campaign Act.
The Michigan Finance Campaign Act requires financial disclosures from all groups. Political action committees that support a certain candidate must also file reports with the Michigan Department of State. However, because Build a Better Michigan filed its organization under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code, it cannot advocate directly for a candidate — since they are not independent from Whitmer’s campaign, there are limits on how much money the organization could spend.
Benson said in a letter to the lawyers representing Build a Better Michigan and Whitmer’s campaign that two particular ads were the main area of concern.
“I conclude that the phrase, ‘Gretchen Whitmer | Candidate for Governor,’ constitutes express advocacy,” Benson wrote. “… I view this interpretation of the MCFA, as applied to this specific set of facts, as critical to promoting greater transparency.”
The two ads showed Whitmer speaking on camera with the words “Gretchen Whitmer, Candidate for Governor.” The complaint filed by the Michigan Republican Party and a conservative group claimed Build a Better Michigan should have disclosed their direct advocacy for Whitmer. According to Colleen Pero, the chief of staff for the Michigan Republican Party, the ads advocated for Whitmer by identifying her as a candidate for governor and indicated collaboration between Whitmer and Build a Better Michigan.
Benson said by doing so, the group violated state campaign finance law.
“The fact that BBM obtained video and audio of the candidate speaking directly to the camera from a predetermined script is sufficient to indicate that coordination occurred,” Benson wrote.
The fine will be paid within the next two months. GOP spokesman Tony Zammit said he was unhappy and called the entire deal “shameful.” The Michigan GOP said they thought Benson and Whitmer had worked out a deal for a smaller fine.
Benson’s spokesman Shawn Starkey told The Detroit News Benson did not believe the fine was on the smaller scale and she asked her staff to keep the context of the case in mind when deciding.
Katie Kelly, communications director for the University of Michigan’s Chapter of College Democrats, said no party is above violating campaign laws.
"Campaign finance violations are wrong no matter the party that commits them,” Kelly said. “As an organization, we strive to promote fair campaigns and elections and it is disheartening to see these kinds of violations within our own party.”
The University’s chapter of College Republicans did not comment in time for publication.
Build a Better Michigan spokesman Mark Fisk said in a statement he was disappointed with the decision, but accepted Benson’s conclusion.
“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,” Fisk said. “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.”
LSA sophomore Maeve Skelly worked on Whitmer’s campaign. She said she agreed with Benson’s decision, adding she thought the fine was overall a step in the right direction toward better communication between government officials and the public.
“I think that this fine was justified and I think that Jocelyn Benson did the right thing setting a precedent for transparency in campaigns going forward and to make sure the Michigan’s Campaign Finance Law is upheld,” Skelly said.