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Nessel charges consultants in Unlock Michigan case

Dana Nessel announcing her bid for Michigan attorney general in 2017.
Detroit Free Press
Dana Nessel announcing her bid for Michigan attorney general in 2017.

A pair of Michigan political consultants are now facing criminal charges in an alleged plot to fundraise for a pandemic-era ballot measure without disclosing donors.

The Unlock Michigan campaign sought to strip the governor’s emergency powers and limit her ability to issue COVID-19 shutdown orders.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel alleges the consultants charged used 501(c)(4) non-profits connected to former Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey to raise money for the campaign.

“Aside from being unethical, what makes these acts criminal is the intentional act of soliciting and receiving money explicitly through one organization with the expressed intention to support a cause that requires public disclosure of donors,” Nessel told reporters Wednesday.

The groups, MI Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility and Michigan! My Michigan! collectively raised over $2 million for the Unlock Michigan Campaign, according to campaign finance records from 2020 and 2021.

Nessel accused Shirkey of being aware what the money raised for the groups was going toward. But Nessel said Shirkey was not criminally liable under state law since he wasn’t legally connected to either group as a director.

Her office is charging Bright Spark Strategies co-founder Heather Lombardini with three campaign finance law violations, misdemeanors for allegedly failing to file a statement of organization and failure to file a campaign statement. Lombardini also faces a felony charge for allegedly providing false information on an affidavit to Michigan Department of State investigators.

Similarly, Sandra Baxter faces a felony perjury charge for allegedly lying to investigators about her relationship with Shirkey.

Nessel’s office's investigation into Unlock Michigan’s finances grew out of a complaint filed by former Michigan Chamber of Commerce attorney Bob LaBrant with the Secretary of State’s office.

The issue didn’t arise during Wednesday’s attorney general press conference.

But Nessel strongly emphasized that her office has gone after both Democrats and Republicans for various crimes. She also referenced campaigns supportive of Democrats, including Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and Republicans that have had to pay fines in the past.

Nessel said that could have been the case in this circumstance as well.

“The preferred way to go about this, obviously, is to have the Secretary of State resolve this administratively and issue a fine. This is only referred to us because they refused to cooperate,” Nessel said.

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Colin Jackson is the Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network.
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