Outrage over leniency for Michigan Gov. Whitmer in campaign finance case

Conservatives blast Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s ruling that Whitmer didn’t violate Michigan campaign finance law.

Updated: December 22, 2021 - 11:50pm

Conservative groups are up in arms over Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s ruling on Tuesday that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did not violate Michigan campaign finance law in two separate instances.

The Michigan Freedom Fund filed a formal campaign finance complaint against the governor last summer after she raised in excess of $3.4 million. Michigan Campaign Finance law limits individual donations to $7,150, but allows an exemption to accept unlimited contributions if a governor is facing a recall attempt.

At the time Whitmer accepted the contributions, there was no active recall effort.

Whitmer raised a record $8.65 million in 2021 with $10.7 million cash on hand. Of that sum, $3.4 million was raised from 119 large donors, including Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who gave $250,000. Attorney Mark Bernstein, brother of Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein, donated $257,150.

Benson’s decision does not force the governor to return the money to the initial donors. It does, however, allow her to remit the monies to other campaign war chests.

“Gretchen Whitmer made the biggest illegal campaign cash grab in Michigan history and Jocelyn Benson is laundering it for her so the millions in donations over the limit can be used for both of their re-election campaigns next year,” Tori Sachs, MFF executive director, said in a statement. “The Freedom Fund filed its campaign finance complaint because the law applies to everyone – even Gretchen Whitmer,” Sachs added.

Sachs also asserted Benson, a Democrat, is “encouraging partisans to file recalls in order to game the system and raise unlimited campaign funds.”

Benson also granted a pass to the governor for using campaign funds to pay for a private charter plane, which she and her daughters used for a four-day Florida trip for the purpose of visiting Whitmer’s father while at the time she was imposing strict COVID-19 restrictions on business owners and residents in Michigan.

Michigan Rising Action, another conservative group, filed a complaint with Benson against Whitmer last July. “There can be no dispute that Respondent Whitmer’s Excursion was a personal expense, unrelated to any campaign activity or official business …,” reads MRA’s complaint.

The cost of the charter flight was $27,521, which was paid from Whitmer’s 2019 transition fund as an “incidental expense.” MRA contends the governor’s charter flight doesn’t meet the legal standard of an incidental expense because the trip had nothing to do with “carrying out the business of the elective office.”

MRA’s complaint also noted the governor didn’t alert Florida law enforcement agencies of her visit.

“Upon information and belief, Respondent Whitmer did not inform Florida Department of Law Enforcement and/or the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office of her four-day Florida Excursion, which would have been standard protocol if there were any sort of security concerns with her travel,” Eric Ventimiglia, MRA executive director, said in a statement.

“Secretary of State Benson’s ruling confirms that ‘rules for thee, not for me’ is not just a political quip, but ingrained in Michigan Democrats’ operating procedures,” Ventimiglia said. “This decision will be a defining moment of their failed tenure, which will go down in history as one of the most corrupt administrations in the history of our state.”

Benson’s ruling allows Whitmer to “disgorge” the excess campaign contributions to recipients of the governor’s choosing rather than forcing the governor to return the money to the 10 donors who exceeded state limits.

“Gretchen Whitmer made the biggest unethical campaign cash grab in Michigan history and even Jocelyn Benson says she’s not allowed to keep it,” Sachs said in a release issued Wednesday. “Gretchen Whitmer has a choice. She can use the tainted millions of dollars to prop up every Democrat campaign by giving the funds to their state party, or Whitmer could do the right thing and donate the money to charities that will help Michiganders devastated by her lockdown orders and botched handling of the COVID pandemic.”

Sachs also pointed out the Secretary of State’s ruling was issued just days before Christmas. The MFF executive director portrayed the timing of Benson’s decision as an “attempt to bury the story days after it was legally due.”