Michigan's Corruptibility Rated An 'F' In New Report -- And It Isn't Just A Detroit Problem

From the cases of Kwame Kilpatrick to those of Monica Conyers and Robert Ficano, metro Detroit has not wanted for blockbuster political scandals over the past few years. But now a new ranking from the Center for Public Integrity claims that Michigan as a whole is one of the worst states when it comes to "corruptibility."

Michigan got an F and ranked 43rd in the nation in the State Integrity Investigation, which aimed to figure out how loopholes or laxness in state laws make it easier to unduly influence legislators and leaders and subvert the political process.

For national political junkies accustomed to cracking jokes about the mob-like political culture of Illinois, New Jersey or Rhode Island, the news that Michigan is one of the most corruptible states might come as something of a surprise. But for clean government advocates who have had their eye on the Wolverine State as they watched corporate money pour into state and local elections in the last few years, the report is just one more sign that Michigan needs to change to avoid even more scandals.

The problem, those advocates say -- and the State Integrity Investigation bears them out -- is that activities that might put you in jail in other states are perfectly legal in Michigan.

"It absolutely extends beyond Detroit," said Jocelyn Benson, a former candidate for secretary of state who is now the associate director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School. Statewide, "we have some of the weakest disclosure and lobbying laws in the country," she said. "Corporate-funded ads and commercials funded by shadowy organization have been on the rise in Michigan and been a significant problem in Michigan years before Citizens United," Benson said. Through super PACs and other campaign practices legalized by the Supreme Court's ruling in its 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, the rest of the country is now getting a taste of Michigan-style politics, she added.

In 2007, the Meijer supermarket chain ran afoul of Michigan's disclosure laws by not revealing its spending to sway the outcome of a recall election for Michigan's Acme Township Board after the company's management didn't like the board's zoning decisions. Michigan's secretary of state later fined the supermarket company $190,000 for this and its activities related to a 2005 referendum. But such enforcement actions are rare in Michigan; much more often, corporations can change public and legislative opinion in ways that may not violate any laws. In 2008, undisclosed donors plunged millions of dollars into a fiercely fought and ostensibly nonpartisan battle over electing a Michigan Supreme Court justice.

More recently, the owners of the Ambassador Bridge and their allies sought to influence legislators to vote against a proposal to build a new, government-owned bridge to Canada. Colleagues of state Rep. Rashida Tlaib in Lansing, Mich., have pointedly told her they would rather remain silent on the bridge issue rather than risk the ire of the Detroit International Bridge Co., which owns the Ambassador Bridge, Tlaib said.

"Sometimes my colleagues will say, well, I don't want to upset the bridge company because I don't want them to upset my election," said Tlaib, whose district includes the Ambassador Bridge and who has long tangled with its owner. "That's the scary part of having corporations bully our public servants through the threat of recall or funneling money to various opponents."

Tlaib said Gov. Rick Synder told her he was shocked by the ability of the Ambassador's owners to unite state legislators, the Koch brothers and the New Black Panther Nation to stand against a competing bridge proposal by spreading money around. None of it comes as a surprise to Rich Robinson, who tracks spending on undisclosed financing of "issue ads" for the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Since 2000 he has watched the posting of about $70 million in TV advertisements that skirt the state campaign finance disclosure system. Other states put stricter limits on such ads, he said, but in Michigan the secretary of state has effectively "given itself a lobotomy at interpreting stuff."

And it's not just advertisements; lobbyists in the state capital of Lansing can get away with quite a lot without registering any of their transactions with state regulators.

"There's really no meaningful disclosure of what lobbyists are spending courting officeholders and administration officials," Robinson said. "Semi-controlled bribery is, I think, an apt description."

Gov. Snyder and Democrats in the state capitol have proposed ethics packages in the form of new legislation. For her part, Benson is proposing the passage of a "Corporate Accountability Amendment" to the Michigan Constitution to impose limits on some of that behind-the-scenes undisclosed financing. But all of those efforts face an uphill battle, and Benson's amendment, if passed, would not go into effect until at least 2014.

Until then, Michigan's leaders have plenty of cleaning up to do. In separate rankings, Michigan received an F in each of the following categories: executive accountability, judicial accountability, state civil service management, state pension fund management, state insurance commissions, political financing, legislative accountability, lobbying disclosure, ethics enforcement agencies and redistricting.