Complaint Against Altmann Appears to Have Been Under Fake Name

Monday, November 16, 2015, 12:39 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum and Erik Altmann, who will be sworn in to serve on the East Lansing City Council tomorrow

Results from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request suggest that an emailed campaign finance complaint made against East Lansing City Council candidate Erik Altmann shortly before the election was made under a false name. Documents also show that Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum’s staff assisted her in a rapid conversion of the vague, apparently pseudonymous emailed complaint against Altmann into a detailed, official compliant to the State that also implicated Council candidates Steve Ross and Mark Meadows in possible legal violations.

While we are still pursuing more details in this matter, here is what we have been able to ascertain so far:

On October 28, the Wednesday before the Tuesday, November 3 election, Erik Altmann mailed out a political campaign letter responding to attack ads that had just been issued against him by the Lansing Chamber of Commerce. In that letter, he closed by suggesting voters elect him, Ross, and Meadows.

The next day, Thursday, October 29, a complaint came to Byrum’s work email address at 6:23 p.m. regarding that mailer. The email came from “Steve Meadows.” We can find no one by this name in the East Lansing area. The name appears to be fake—an amalgam of the two other candidates Altmann had endorsed: Steve Ross and Mark Meadows. Byrum’s office is refusing to disclose the email address associated with this compliant, claiming it counts as “personal information” and is therefore not subject to release via FOIA.

Michigan law requires that a complaint made under the Michigan Campaign Finance Act be very specific, including the name, address, and telephone number of the complainant, as well as details about which portion of the law is allegedly being violated and how. The complaint must also certify that “to the best of your knowledge, information, and belief…each factual contention of the compliant is supported by evidence.”

The complaint that came into Byrum’s office had no address or phone number, and did not otherwise meet the requirements of a formal complaint. It was short, saying only:

“I received a copy of the attached mailing from Erik Altmann. The last sentence [in which Altmann recommended voting for him, Ross, and Meadows] is a blatant violation of campaign finance law. Mr. Altmann has made a sizable, illegal contribution to the campaigns of Steve Ross and Mark Meadows [by recommending votes for Ross and Meadows]. Please investigate this violation and take appropriate action.”

By 10:21 the next morning, October 30—the Friday before the election—Robin Stites, Election/Clerk Coordinator in Byrum’s office, had produced a draft of a formal State-level compliant in Byrum's name. Stites sent this drafted letter to Ryan J. Buck, Chief Deputy Clerk for Ingham County, with a copy to Byrum.

The draft and final version of Byrum’s complaint letter to the State were very specific in how Byrum saw the potential violation of campaign finance law by Altmann. Byrum also expanded on the emailed complaint in her letter to the state, adding specific possible violations by Ross’s and Meadows’ campaigns.

FOIA also shows that, between the draft and the final version, someone in Byrum's office added a line suggesting “there could be [other] potential concerns raised during the course of the Michigan Department of State’s investigation into this matter."

Byrum had her complaint on her official letterhead, signed, and sent to the State by 11:40 a.m. on the morning after the email complaint came in. This means that within three business hours of receiving the emailed complaint, she had forwarded a detailed, formalized complaint to the State about the campaigns of Altmann, Meadows, and Ross.

At 12:07 p.m. that day, October 30, Byrum wrote to Altmann, Meadows, and Ross, to inform them of what she had done. She wrote  to them: “Heads up, I received a complaint, last night, and have sent this letter to the Secretary of State in regards.” In the interchange that followed, Byrum told Ross “I investigate all complaints filed with my office,” but only forwards to the State those she thinks have merit. Altmann, Ross, and Meadows say they received no inquiry from her until she had already filed the complaint.

At 12:09 p.m. the same day, Byrum wrote to “Steve Meadows” to thank him for his email message and to show him the letter she had sent to the State.

By 7 p.m. that day, the Lansing State Journal had a news story up about the complaint. It made no mention of how the LSJ reporter had learned of the complaint, which had arrived to Bryum’s office only about 24 hours before.

As Ingham County Clerk, Barb Byrum is tasked with the job of overseeing elections in our County, including our City Council elections. Byrum has declined to answer our questions regarding perception of conflict of interest in the matter (she endorsed and contributed to candidates running against Altmann, Meadows, and Ross in the East Lansing City Council race), of what her investigation consisted, and why she did not instruct the complainant “Steve Meadows” in how to file a complaint according to the law.

Altmann, Meadows, and Shanna Draheim were elected to City Council and will be sworn in tomorrow evening by City Clerk Marie Wicks.

 

Read our last report on this story here.

 

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