Companies With City-Related Business Donating to “Yes” Campaign

Thursday, August 2, 2018, 7:43 am
By: 
Andrew Graham

The “vote yes” campaign on East Lansing’s income tax proposal has accepted contributions from a number of businesses which stand to potentially profit from future decisions by East Lansing’s City Council. All five members of East Lansing’s City Council have come out strongly on the side of “yes” on the income tax proposal.

Donors to the “yes” campaign have included three law firms all with active business before East Lansing’s city government, and two sets of marijuana industry players from out of town.

On Tuesday this week, a week in advance of East Lansing’s income tax proposal vote, ELi published a story headlined “Campaign Finance Reports Show Details of Yes and No Campaigns.” The story laid out the major donors to each campaign and provided basic information about donors.

In response to that story, a number of ELi readers wrote in to point out that some of the donors have or are likely to soon have financial business before City Council. One who did not wish to be named suggested this is an attempt to “curry favor” with East Lansing government leaders.

Among the donations to the “Yes” campaign is a $500 donation from the Miller Canfield law firm in Detroit, which used a political action committee (PAC) to make its donation. Miller Canfield has enjoyed a long-term, no-bid contract for the City’s bond work, usually handled by partner Bill Danhoff. (Danhoff himself, a resident of East Lansing, gave $100.)

Miller Canfield was recently paid $155,000 from the Center City District project bond, a bond which will be reimbursed through tax increment financing (TIF). The current and last several Councils have shown no interest in bidding-out the City’s bond work.

David Mittleman, a law partner at Church Wyble, donated $1,000 to the “Yes” campaign. Recently, he persuaded City Council to sign on to a contingency lawsuit he’s brought forward on opioids. The lawsuit is still being litigated, so he is currently representing the City.

George Brookover, attorney and East Lansing resident, frequently represents local clients with issues before City Council. He donated $2,000 plus $687 in kind.

Emerald Growth Partners, a corporation based in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, works in the cannabis (marijuana) industry. Emerald Growth Partners donated $1,000 to the “Yes” campaign.

Council is in the process of establishing regulations for the marijuana business in East Lansing, including determining how many companies, if any, will be awarded licenses for marijuana provisioning centers.

Three members of the Piedmonte family of Traverse City, Michigan, also made donations to the “Yes” campaign: Nick ($200), Bryan ($200) and Christopher ($100). The Piedmontes are the owners of Grand Traverse Vapor, and have expressed interest in medical marijuana expansion in the Traverse City area.

As ELi reported earlier this week, the “No” campaign has had only two donors this year, including the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce ($10,000) and Greenstone Farm Credit Services ($2,500). In the past, business owners in East Lansing have expressed concern about political retaliation for opposing an income tax supported unilaterally by City leaders, although investigation by ELi has not found evidence of that.

ELi asked City Council Members for their comment on how they see this issue of organizations with business before Council paying into a political campaign favored unilaterally by Council Members.

Council has an ethics ordinance which requires members to disclose, before a vote, if a person with financial business before Council has donated $100 or more to their campaigns. That ethics rule does not require members to disclose if such a person has donated to a ballot campaign supported by a Council Member.

No member of Council responded to inquiries from ELi.

ELi also asked Doug Jester, former East Lansing mayor and treasurer for the “Yes” campaign, about this issue by email.

Jester responded, "Everyone who resides or works in East Lansing has a stake in the outcome of this ballot question. I assume that everyone who contributes to the campaigns for or against the proposal has a personal interest, or they would not have contributed. I personally contributed because I think that maintaining certain levels of city services and maintaining assets are important to my quality of life and to the value of my property in East Lansing and I am willing to pay increased taxes to support those purposes.”

Jester’s statement continued, “While most of our donors do not have a business relationship with the City other than paying taxes and benefitting from services and assets, some do. Most of those who do some business with the City also live or work in East Lansing and likely have the same interests in a viable, livable city as the rest of the donors to the ‘Yes’ campaign.”

He concluded, “I do not think it is unethical for them to contribute to a campaign that they support, just as I don’t think it unethical for people who will pay more taxes, and therefore have an economic stake in the question, to support the ‘No’ campaign.”