County Clerk Forwards Accusation of Campaign Violation Against Altmann

Friday, October 30, 2015, 9:01 pm
Alice Dreger

Above: County Clerk Barb Byrum and City Council Candidate Erik Altmann

According to a new report from the Lansing State Journal (LSJ), Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum has forwarded on to the State a complaint against East Lansing City Council candidate Erik Altmann alleging a campaign finance law violation. This relates to a new campaign letter Altmann sent out to defend himself against attack ads from the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Altmann’s letter claims, “The Chamber is pouring record-shattering amounts of money into our City Council race” and concludes, “It was a business decision. Developers got $5 million in subsidies from the East Lansing City Council in the past year alone. Even if they have to spend $50,000 for a new City Council majority for the next two years, that’s still pennies on the dollar.”

The possible violation relates to Altmann’s letter’s suggestion to vote for him, Steve Ross, and Mark Meadows. Byrum would not name the complainant, but reported to the LSJ, “Altmann’s letter could represent one or more of three things: a loan to Ross’ and Meadows’ campaign committees, a contribution of more than $100 to the candidate committees in the form of a fundraiser ticket or an in-kind contribution to the other candidate committees, all of which are prohibited by state law.”

Altmann told the LSJ that if he violated the law, he will correct his error.

As we reported earlier, it is widely assumed that the race for the third seat of this City Council race—a seat that could tip a political majority one way or another—is between Altmann and Shanna Draheim.

Although East Lansing’s Council race is nonpartisan in terms of political parties, spending by the Chamber, various endorsements, campaign donations, and comments by candidates strongly suggest that if Altmann and Meadows win, there will be a political majority that includes them and Councilmember Ruth Beier. If Draheim and Triplett win, there will be a political majority that includes them and Councilmember Susan Woods.

In a City Pulse article yesterday, Todd Heywood explained that there is “a growing divide in the college town over development incentives. Incumbents Susan Woods and Nathan Triplett have voted to approve various developer incentives on projects in the community, often carrying a 3-2 vote.” (See examples here.)

The LSJ’s report on Barb Byrum’s forwarding of the complaint did not mention that Byrum has endorsed Shanna Draheim’s campaign, as per Draheim’s website and mailers. (An ad for Draheim paid for by the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce includes an endorsement from Byrum’s mother, Diane Byrum, but not from Barb Byrum. Draheim has told ELi she was not aware the Chamber was going to send out ads in support of her campaign.)

The LSJ also did not report that Barb Byrum is a donor to Mayor Nathan Triplett’s campaign for re-election. Barb Byrum donated $250 to Triplett. (Diane Byrum donated $1,000 to Triplett.) Barb Byrum has also endorsed Triplett’s campaign according to his website.

As we reported yesterday, County Clerk Byrum has opined that the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce’s attack ads against Altmann legally count as “educational,” because they don’t say “vote against.” She says these ads are therefore not subject to the restrictions of campaign finance law. We investigated the question earlier today and concluded this appears to be correct.

A third attack ad from the Chamber showed up in East Lansing mailboxes today, leading with an LSJ article quotation saying that Altmann has a “propensity for using alarming metaphors [that] may cause unnecessary anxiety.”

We have asked the six candidates for their reaction to this development and have not yet heard back from any of them. When we do, we will update this report or provide their responses in an additional article.

UPDATE: At 9:10 pm, we received and posted the following statements:

Erik Altmann:

Throughout the campaign I’ve done my best to follow the intricacies of Michigan campaign finance law. I’ve also gone above and beyond by publicly disclosing my campaign contributions voluntarily for the past two months, so everyone knows exactly who's funding my campaign. If state officials decide I've missed something by endorsing the candidates I want to serve with on City Council, I'll work with them to fix it.


Steve Ross:

Just like many of the other candidates across the state each election cycle - it looks like Erik, a political rookie, made a mistake when it comes to navigating the sometimes unclear and murky campaign finance laws. As Ms. Parker mentioned on the phone to me earlier, no one is an expert in this stuff.

I'm not really sure if this is newsworthy or not.  It seems like more of a distraction technique to me. But again, just like the Chamber mailings, this tactic is tone deaf and really underestimates the intelligence of East Lansing voters.

I think the real news story here is how this even became a story in the first place.

But what really stood out as interesting to me is that our county clerk took issue with this mailer but found nothing wrong with the improper disclosures on the Chamber's mailers. I wonder about that.


UPDATE: At 11:22 p.m., we received an email from Jermaine Ruffin letting us know he wouldn't be commenting on this.

UPDATE:At 12:19 a.m. (October 31), we received permission from Mark Meadows to reprint this statement that he put on Facebook, and we posted it at 9:17 a.m.:

Mark Meadows:

First, the article says I was left a message. I was not left a message so there was no message for me to respond to. Second, no complaint was filed against me or Steve Ross. The complaint was filed against Erik Altmann stating that a line in a campaign mailer he sent out after the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce sent an attack ad against him, was a violation of campaign finance law. The complaint, a copy of which was given me by the County Clerk, explicitly states: "Mr. Altmann has made a sizable, illegal contribution to the campaigns of Steve Ross and Mark Meadows." The line the complaint was based on states: "Lets send a message that East Lansing is not for sale. On November 3rd, vote for Erik Altmann, Mark Meadows and Steve Ross for East Lansing City Council." Third, like Mr. Ross, the first time I saw this mailer or even heard about it was when the County Clerk sent it to me. Fourth, if this is indeed a contribution then I hereby expressly and unconditionally reject it as is my right under the provisions of MCL 169.204 (3): "Contribution does not include any of the following: ...(c) An offer or tender of a contribution if expressly and unconditionally rejected..." Fifth, the County Clerk has refused to identify the complainant so it is impossible to know whether this is just another campaign dirty trick. Sixth, the 48 word memo which is the "complaint " is not compliant with the requirements for a complaint filed with the Bureau of Elections, so probably isn't a complaint at all.

UPDATE: At 9:08 a.m. (October 31), we received the following statement at 9:08 a.m. and posted it at 9:17 a.m.

Shanna Draheim:

I'm focused 100% on talking to voters about my vision for East Lansing's future in these last four days of the campaign.  I am not going to spend time or energy on the campaigns of my fellow candidates.  I wish them all good luck.

See an update on this story, including an updated statement from Draheim, here.

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