Login Dark

Donors behind 2 Michigan lawmakers' trips to Israel, Brazil kept secret - Detroit News

Author: Detroit News

Source: https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/politics/2023/10/29/michigan-democratic-senators-travel-to-israel-brazil-kept-secret-personal-financial-disclosure/71347499007/

Image of Donors behind 2 Michigan lawmakers' trips to Israel, Brazil kept secret - Detroit News

Lansing — Two top Michigan Senate Democrats have revealed they've gone on international trips while serving in the state Legislature that were paid for, in part, by secret donors whose identities didn't have to be reported to voters.A month before Senate Democrats introduced financial disclosure bills that would keep airfare and hotel stays provided to state officeholders shielded from public reporting, Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, used a nonprofit fundraising account to pay for a flight to a conference in Brazil.Under current law, the account doesn't have to say where its money came from, and there's nothing to force Brinks to document the trip.After receiving a question from The Detroit News, Brinks spokeswoman Rosie Jones last week detailed the arrangement behind the venture to Brazil, saying Brinks attended a Sept.20-23 event in Rio de Janeiro put on by the National Conference of State Legislatures.Senate Democrats unveiled their voter-required disclosure plan without new travel reporting standards on Tuesday.In addition, Sen.Sarah Anthony, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, confirmed that in 2019, she went with other lawmakers on an educational and economic mission to Israel when she was serving in the House. Republican then-House Speaker Lee Chatfield somehow covered the cost of her airfare, Anthony told The News on Wednesday."If you have additional questions about which funds were (used) to pay for the flight, I would direct those questions to him," wrote Anthony, D-Lansing, in a text message.Anthony didn't previously have to disclose the trip or the connection to Chatfield, then the top lawmaker in the Michigan House.Nick Pigeon, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog and research organization Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said his group believes in having officeholders report the trips they benefit from so voters can decide for themselves whether the details matter."It would be out there for the public, for journalists and researchers to find out and analyze," Pigeon said.Anthony declined Thursday to explain how Chatfield came to finance her travel to Israel.Other Democrats who served with Anthony in the House have repeatedly criticized Chatfield's fundraising and spending through a so-called social welfare organization named the Peninsula Fund and pushed for a legislative committee to examine how he used his power.Chatfield, R-Levering, has been under investigation by Attorney General Dana Nessel's office, which has been examining the use of nonprofit fundraising accounts by Chatfield and his top staffers.Chatfield's Peninsula Fund reported spending $195,780 on travel in 2019, his first year as speaker.Then, in 2020, the Peninsula Fund spent $431,081 more on travel and entertainment during Chatfield's second and final year in the speaker's office.Under state and federal policies, the nonprofit didn't have to detail which individuals ultimately benefited from the money or which companies or individuals provided the money.Asked about paying for Anthony's airfare to Israel, Chatfield's lawyer, Mary Chartier, didn't answer specific questions."Mr.Chatfield is confident that the law was complied with in relation to this trip and others," Chartier said.Reporting trips?Under current Michigan law, only registered lobbyists have to report trips they provide for state officeholders if they spend more than $950.However, few trips are disclosed because trips are frequently funded through lawmakers' nonprofit organizations that can generally raise and spend money in secret.Under the setup, lobbyists or groups they represent can give dollars to a lawmaker's account, the account can fund travel to a conference or event, and the connections remain hidden.In November, voters approved a ballot proposal requiring lawmakers to enact a financial disclosure law. Michigan has been one of two states where legislators didn't have to submit any type of disclosure on their assets and income to screen for conflicts of interest.The language that appeared on the ballot said the proposal would require officeholders to report on their "assets, liabilities, income sources, future employment agreements, gifts, travel reimbursements and positions held in organizations."Voters approved the measure with 66% support, giving lawmakers until the end of 2023 to enact a disclosure policy.But lawmakers waited until this month to introduce bills that require themselves only to report travel payments that are already disclosed by lobbyists, meaning no new information on outside sources of flights and hotel stays would be made available.More: Transparency bills leave bevy of loopholes for Michigan lawmakersMore: Treatment of spouses spurs divide in Michigan Democrats' transparency planState Sen.Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, told reporters on Wednesday that he believes there should be disclosures dealing with flights, but he argued those should be required through separate legislation to alter Michigan's campaign finance laws."The financial disclosure items that are in front of us are about an individual's financial pieces," Singh said."Asking us to make changes into other areas dealing with nonprofit organizations and other things would require us to open up other acts."I'm willing to have that conversation," he said."And that's something that I would say that we would look at next year."But other states and the federal government require officeholders to report travel reimbursements on their financial disclosures, the Campaign Finance Network's Pigeon noted.Gov.Gretchen Whitmer has previously called on Michigan officeholders to use the federal disclosure form. Generally, members of the U.S.House have to report on any trips they take, funded by others, where expenses — food, transportation and lodging — exceed $480 and where the expenses were paid for by a source other than a federal, state or local government or a relative.More: Gov.Whitmer criticizes detailed income disclosures on officeholders' spousesA trek to IsraelOut-of-state excursions by Michigan lawmakers to visit business locations, attend a conference or make educational stops happen often.For instance, the United Jewish Foundation regularly helps sponsor trips for lawmakers to trek to Israel.The foundation pays for lawmakers' hotel stays and travel within Israel, but the lawmakers are responsible for their flights to get there.Those were the circumstances under which Chatfield paid for Anthony's flight to Israel in 2019.The flight likely cost about $1,500 to $2,000, according to prices available online last week.State Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, also attended the 2019 trip to Israel.Moss said he used his personal money to pay for his travel to Israel.Moss is the lead sponsor of the new financial disclosure bills in the state Senate.Moss told reporters on Wednesday the discussions about improving transparency in Lansing will continue."There is absolute merit to examining those areas where people are now finding themselves under criminal investigation for," Moss said."But I wouldn't conflate that our proposal here today is a demonstration that we're done with this work in that area."Then-Rep.Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, also went on the 2019 trip to Israel. Lasinski, who has been an outspoken critic of Chatfield, said she wasn't aware Chatfield somehow paid for Anthony's flight.Lasinski left the House because of term limits at the end of 2022.Asked if she thinks lawmakers should have to disclose the outside travel payments they benefit from, Lasinski said she would have been happy to while she was in office."That, to me, is a no-brainer," Lasinski said.Going to BrazilBrinks became the top lawmaker in the state Senate in January.She attended a leaders symposium put on by the National Conference of State Legislatures in Rio de Janeiro last month.Jones, Brinks' spokeswoman, said the registration fee and hotel stay were covered by NCSL, which represents the legislatures in the states, territories and commonwealths of the United States, according to its website.Jones said a nonprofit organization connected to Brinks funded her flight to South America.The nonprofit is called the Grand Rapids Area Community Engagement Fund (GRACE Fund).The fund launched in 2018.Like Chatfield's Peninsula Fund, Brinks' GRACE Fund doesn't have to disclose where its money comes from.But its donors include the Michigan Association of Health Plans, which has reported giving the GRACE Fund $6,000 in 2023.The legislative assembly in Rio de Janeiro posted an announcement about a visit by leaders from the U.S. on its website in September.Photos in the announcement appear to show Brinks in the [email protected]

Subscribe To Our NewsLetter