Michigan AG charges two in ‘dark money’ scheme connected to former Senate leader Shirkey ⋆

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has charged two government operatives connected to the right-wing group “Unlock Michigan,” which protested COVID-era health orders, for their part in a “dark money” scheme.

On Wednesday, as Nessel announced the charges in Lansing, she drew connections to former Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), who Nessel said evidence shows he “repeatedly bragged” about controlling multiple dark money political action campaigns (PACs). However, Shirkey, who was term-limited in 2022 is not charged in what Nessel called a completed investigation.

“Without these hired guns, these dark money operations would never exist and I’d argue that they are even sought after and hired for that exact skill set,” said Nessel, a Democrat. “And in this instance, these hired guns also lied to government officials to hide their wrongdoing, literally making the coverup worse than the crime.”

Unlock Michigan campaign forges on, even after Supreme Court ruling

Nessel said the two women charged, Heather Lombardini and Sandy Baxter, were involved with fundraising for Michigan! My Michigan! (MMM), a nonprofit organization with ties to Shirkey and other Republican lawmakers. Between MMM and Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility (MCFR), of which Lombardini was president, the two nonprofits contributed over $2.6 million in funding to Unlock Michigan, almost 86% of the total funding.

Nessel said Shirkey and Lombardini solicited contributions for the Unlock Michigan petition to repeal 1945 Emergency Power rules that Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer utilized for emergency health orders to curb the spread of COVID-19 in 2020, which courts determined later was unconstitutional

However, where the fundraising turned criminal was the lack of transparency mandated under Michigan Campaign Finance laws, Nessel said, as Lombardi, acting as treasurer of MMM and president of MCFR failed to file disclosures for donors to the groups which funded nearly the entirety of Unlock Michigan’s efforts.

“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 said. “The issue at hand here is not the attempt to raise money for Unlock Michigan. They always had that opportunity through their publicly disclosed ballot committee, but the mechanism used here to raise the money was done so, secretly without the transparency and the sunshine that’s required by the Michigan campaign finance laws.”

While Lombardini faces three misdemeanors and a felony for campaign finance violations, Baxter’s singular felony charge is due to the Attorney General’s Office assertion that she lied under oath during the investigation.

Here are the charges:

Heather Lombardini:

  • One count of uttering and publishing, a 14-year felony
  • Two counts of failing to file a statement of organization, $1,000 fined misdemeanors
  • One count of failure to file a campaign statement, a 90-day misdemeanor

Sandy Baxter:

  • One count of perjury, a 15-year felony 

This is the second time in recent months that Nessel has announced campaign finance-related charges for political operatives with ties to high-ranking legislators.

Former high-ranking aides to former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) were charged in December with several felonies of embezzlement and conducting a criminal enterprise in December. Nessel said at the time that the two individuals charged, a married couple Robert and Anne Minard of Bath Township, fraudulently obtained more than $500,000 through purposeful “black and white” criminal activity in fundraising that made it clear to investigators that they never thought they’d get caught.

“… Rob and Anne Minard didn’t just skirt around Michigan’s anemic regulation of political spending, but knowingly, willfully and overtly violated the law for their own personal enrichment … the Minards hid under the guise of the business of fundraising to repeatedly embezzle money from nonprofits.”  

Unlock Michigan poster at a Michigan Attorney General’s Office press conference

The Minards have pleaded not guilty.

Because Shirkey did not have a title within MMM or MCFR and didn’t bear legal responsibility within the organizations, current laws don’t warrant any charges against him, Nessel said. However, Nessel said she and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who’s also a Democrat, would like to see more transparency and accountability in the law.

Financial-related charges remain on the table in the investigation into Chatfield and his associates, Nessel said in December, but no charges have been announced for the former speaker. An investigation into accusations made by Chatfield’s sister-in-law that he sexually assaulted her for over a decade, starting when she was 14 or 15 years old remains ongoing.

Nessel said it’s important to look into key players in Michigan politics outside of elected officials, saying these “hired guns” will work on campaigns and most flagrantly violate the rules to secure their goals.

“Elected officials come and go … but it’s the political consultants that stay around for longer periods of time,” Nessel said. “They’re also the ones that are oftentimes charged with having an expertise in these matters and they know how these campaigns work and they know how to skirt the rules.”

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authored by Anna Liz Nichols
First published at https%3A%2F%2Fmichiganadvance.com%2F2024%2F02%2F21%2Fmichigan-ag-charges-two-in-dark-money-scheme-connected-to-former-senate-leader-shirkey%2F

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