Bernero sends a message

August 31, 2014




Deb Nolan, chairperson of the Ingham County Board of Commissioners, did something to anger Lansing mayor Virg Bernero. As a result, he supported her opponent in the Democratic primary this year. He personally passed out literature outside a polling place and he is suspected of being behind a group that paid for two anti-Nolan mailers earlier in the campaign. All this is from an August 27 City Pulse story which also said that since there was no statement on the literature identifying who paid for it, campaign finance law may have been violated.


Despite Benero's efforts, Nolan won by a wide margin. Still, Bernero made his point. He is the big dog in Lansing, and anyone who dares to oppose him is asking for trouble. Toe the line, or he'll be coming after you. He could have sent one of his minions to pass out that literature, but no - he showed up in person. To attract media attention, he stood in the area near the polling place where soliciting is prohibited by law. He wanted to make sure everyone got the message: if you cross Virg Bernero, you might wake up in the morning next to a severed horse head.


The City Pulse says the dispute with Nolan was about the retirement funds the City had to transfer to the county for the consolidated 911 center. My source tells me it was because the county board of commissioners, which Nolan heads, refused Bernero's request to help pay for city parks. Neither seems serious enough to warrant a dirty campaign attack.


The City Pulse says county clerk Barb Byrum is going to file a complaint with the state Bureau of Elections, but Bernero should be confident he can get away with it. Since 2006, he has collected over $333,000 for his 527 account and spent most of it on himself, yet the IRS does nothing. Last October, the City Pulse reported that a complaint had been filed with the Secretary of State alleging that the Bernero campaign had made illegal, back door contributions to the campaign of city council candidate Kathie Dunbar. The complaint was dismissed in March of this year.


In June of 2013, Bernero made unusually large payments to campaign workers Chris Breznau and Elizabeth Hart. This is from the expenditure section of Bernero's pre-primary report:


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The following list of payments to Breznau and Hart during the 2013 campaign shows that these payments were indeed out of the ordinary:


Name Purpose Date Amount  
Chris Breznau Contract Employee 4/18/2013 400.00  
Chris Breznau Contract Employee 5/7/2013 400.00  
Chris Breznau Contract Employee 5/16/2013 1,770.98  
Chris Breznau Contract Employee 5/31/2013 1,795.15  
Chris Breznau Contract Employee 6/14/2013 3,200.00  
Chris Breznau Contract Employee 7/5/2013 1,200.00  
Chris Breznau Contract Employee 7/12/2013 1,200.00  
Chris Breznau Consulting 9/9/2013 1,200.00  
Chris Breznau Consulting 9/20/2013 1,672.79  
Chris Breznau Consulting 10/4/2013 1,629.36  
Elizabeth Hart Contract Employee 6/3/2013 300.00  
Elizabeth Hart Contract Employee 6/14/2013 2,600.00  
Elizabeth Hart Contract Employee 7/5/2013 600.00  
Elizabeth Hart Contract Employee 7/12/2013 600.00  
Elizabeth Hart Consultation/Research/Survey/Sign 8/5/2013 600.00  
Elizabeth Hart Consultation/Research/Survey/Sign 8/13/2013 600.00  
Elizabeth Hart Consulting 9/7/2013 600.00  
Elizabeth Hart Consulting 9/20/2013 600.00  
Elizabeth Hart Consulting 10/4/2013 600.00  
Elizabeth Hart Consulting 10/18/2013 600.00  


Three days after receiving the payments, each contributed $1000 to the Dunbar campaign. This is from Dunbar's report:


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What apparently wasn't known to the person who filed the complaint was that they also contributed $500 each to Jessica Yorko and Tina Houghton, two other city council candidates favored by Bernero. This is from Yorko's report:


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And this is from Houghton's report:


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So within 5 days of receiving an unusually large paycheck, each contributed $2,000 to city council candidates. Breznau was earning about $2,400 a month and Hart was earning about $1,500 a month, so it is unlikely they made those contributions voluntarily.

Section 44 of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act clearly prohibits making a contribution through another person:

Sec. 44. (1) A contribution shall not be made by a person to another person with the agreement or arrangement that the person receiving the contribution will then transfer that contribution to a particular candidate committee. . .

   (5) A person who knowingly violates this section is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000.00, or imprisonment for not more than 90 days, or both.


Through a Freedom of Information Act request, I got all the documents related to the complaint. Bernero's response to the complaint, prepared by attorney Michael Hodge of Miller Canfield, makes these points:

  • The complainant [Sheryl Ayers of Eaton Rapids] neither lives, pays taxes nor votes in Lansing.

  • The complainant does not identify the specific sub-paragraph of Section 44 that was violated.

  • The $3,200 payment Breznau received in June was his only pay that month [he was paid $1,795.15 on May 31 and $1,200 on July 5].

  • Hart's predecessor, Michelle Benson, received $2,400 in May and made no contribution to the Dunbar campaign.

  • The campaign was short of funds during that time and staff had to wait as long as 21 days to be paid [the campaign had a balance of $7,305.08 on 12/31/2012 and $60,316.48 on 7/21/2013].

  • Hart was an effective fund raiser in June and reaped the benefit of her success [if she was so effective, why were they short of funds?].

  • It is no surprise that two politically active campaigners would contribute to other candidates.

The complaint was dismissed because Breznau and Hart signed affidavits saying they were not instructed or directed by Bernero or the Bernero campaign to make those contributions. With no evidence to the contrary, the Bureau of Elections was forced to dismiss. Bernero dodged the bullet and Breznau and Hart can look forward to successful careers in politics.

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