By Beth LeBlanc and Craig Mauger
From The Detroit News
LANSING, Mich.—The Michigan Republican Party is now challenging Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s use of campaign money to help pay for a private jet she used in March to visit her father in Florida.
The Friday complaint to the state Bureau of Elections, signed by Jason Roe, the state GOP’s executive director, is the highest profile campaign complaint yet against the plane arrangement, following a previous one by Republican activist Brandon Hall. It argues the $27,521 cost of the flight falls outside of an “incidental office expense” that could be covered by Whitmer’s campaign committee under the Michigan Campaign Finance Act because it was a personal trip “not related to any official business or campaign activity.”
“There is no other individual or organization who should have paid for the governor’s luxury personal travel to Florida except for Governor Whitmer herself,” Roe wrote in the complaint.
The Michigan Democratic Party defended Whitmer in a Friday statement, calling the GOP complaint the latest partisan attack against the governor.
“This is yet another bogus complaint in the MIGOP’s never-ending obstruction of Governor Whitmer’s success in combating COVID-19, while they’ve simultaneously been doing everything in their personal, professional and legislative capacities to set Michigan backwards, prolong the pandemic, and make it harder for our economy to recover,” said Rodericka Applewhaite, a spokeswoman for the state Democratic party.
Whitmer’s campaign attorney, Christopher Trebilcock, said last week that the Whitmer for Governor candidate committee would pay for the controversial flight to and from Lansing and West Palm Beach March 12 and March 15. He said Whitmer would personally reimburse her campaign for the cost of a first-class ticket for herself and her two daughters, who accompanied her on the return flight.
Trebilcock maintained Whitmer’s candidate committee was a valid source for the payments because state law allows such committees to pay for expenses “paid or incurred in carrying out the business of an elective office.” Were it not for her elected office, Whitmer wouldn’t have to incur extra costs to travel with a security detail, he said.
Whitmer has said she held meetings while taking care of her father, Richard. Her dad is battling a chronic illness, according to the governor’s office.
Campaign finance experts disagree over whether the use of the plane by the candidate committee will stand up to legal scrutiny. The Michigan GOP’s complaint will be handled by employees of the Michigan Bureau of Elections, which is a part of Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s department.
Campaign finance complaints often take months to be investigated and resolved. Penalties usually involve fines levied against committees.
In February 2019, Benson negotiated a $37,500 campaign finance settlement with Build a Better Michigan, which spent more than $2.4 million in 2018 backing Whitmer as a form of “issue advocacy.”
Some of the group’s pro-Whitmer ads, which starred the candidate herself, violated the law by identifying Whitmer as a “candidate for governor,” the Democratic secretary of state decided. The group’s spending also could not be considered an “independent expenditure” because of apparent coordination with Whitmer’s campaign, Benson ruled.
Republicans and a conservative group argued the fine amounted to a pittance. They argued the pro-Whitmer group should have paid a fine worth millions of dollars, pointing to a 2016 incident in which a GOP independent group backing senator candidates was forced to pay a fine that was the same amount it had illegally spent.
On the plane arrangement, the governor’s office initially said Michigan Transition 2019, a nonprofit organization tied to the administration, would pay the $27,521 cost to use PVS Chemicals’ Gulfstream G280 flown by Air Eagle.
But PVS told the nonprofit that Federal Aviation Administration rules prevented the company from taking reimbursement from a social welfare organization like Michigan Transition 2019, Trebilcock said. Instead, the cost of the flight would be paid by the governor’s campaign account.
As of last week, the Whitmer for Governor campaign account had not yet paid PVS for the flight because PVS first wanted to make sure that the changed payment arrangement would resolve an Federal Aviation Administration inquiry into the flight.
In his letter last week to the House Oversight Committee chairman, Trebilcock argued that the cost was considered an “incidental office expense” because, were she not governor, Whitmer would not need additional accommodations to travel with security.
But the Michigan Republican Party in its Friday letter argued Whitmer could have flown commercially with her security detail, similar to other high-ranking officials.
“First, payments for private travel are not, and have never been, considered to be a ‘necessary security expense’ by any legal authority,” Roe wrote. “When the Secretary of State approved the use of campaign funds for ‘necessary security expenses,’ she considered items such as home security systems or ballistic vests, not private jets.”
Roe said the trip could not be considered an “incidental office expense” because it was personal and did not meet the definition of “ordinary and necessary expenses created for the purpose of carrying out the business of an elective office.”
Whitmer’s attempt to pay for her seat on the flight does little to alleviate the concerns regarding campaign funds paying for the rest of the $27,521 bill, the letter said.
Further, until the campaign actually pays PVS, the use of the plane would fall under a prohibited corporate contribution under campaign finance law, Roe said.
“The governor’s 3% payment for the flight, while a clever superficial attempt to alleviate the horrible optics surrounding this trip, does not cure any violation of Michigan campaign finance law,” he wrote.
Michigan Republicans have repeatedly criticized Whitmer’s trip to visit her father since it was first acknowledged on April 19, a month after it occurred. Last week, the Republican Governors Association announced plans to air more than $500,000 in television ads targeting the governor over the travel.
“It’s maddening,” Whitmer said about the GOP criticism in April. “A lot of these same people would accuse me of not having family values if I didn’t show up when a family member needed some help.”
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