What kind of justice does $200,000 buy? And why would anyone outside of Oakland County, and especially outside of Michigan, care about the outcome in the race for five Oakland County Circuit Court judge positions?
Those are the questions being raised — and the questions to which there are only conjecture and speculation as answers at this point — because of more than $65,000 in spending so far from at least three well-heeled out-of-state donors going toward the campaigns of two Oakland County Circuit Court bench seat challengers; and at least $133,000 doled out for an attack ad against Circuit Court Judge Phyllis McMillen that aired last week on multiple cable and network television stations.
Insiders say they expect that this barrage of out-of-state funding is just the tip of the iceberg.
Three donors, $67,000
Campaign finance documents filed with the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office show that the Citizens Action Fund (CAF) — a registered Michigan political action committee (PAC) which lists as its treasurer and designated recordkeeper Ellen Kletzka of The Sterling Corporation — has given Sterling almost $67,000 to finance the campaign operations of Deborah Carley and William Rollstin, the two Michigan assistant attorneys general who are challenging incumbent Circuit Court judges McMillen, Leo Bowman, Denise Langford-Morris, Wendy Potts, and Michael Warren in the Nov. 6 general election.
CAF’s campaign finance reports show that it took in $120,000 from three sources between April 21 and July 20: Andrew J. McKenna of Arlington, Va. ($100,000 contributed on July 18); John Bryan of Lake Oswego, Ore. ($10,000 donated on June 6); and John Templeton, Jr. of Conshohocken, Penn. ($10,000 contributed on June 25).
In that time period, CAF’s donations to The Sterling Corporation, a Lansing-based Republican-leaning communications and political consulting firm, paid for Carley’s and Rollstin’s petition signature collection, printing and design work, media photos and videos, website hosting, and consulting services.
The Citizens Action Fund’s balance at the end of the prior campaign finance reporting period, which ran from Oct. 21, 2011 to April 20, 2012, was just $1,224.36 — meaning that the vast majority of the Carley and Rollstin campaigns’ start-up expenditures, if not all, were paid for with the out-of-state money from McKenna, Templeton and Bryan, all three of whom are donors contributing heavily to GOP candidates and groups, campaign finance records show.
But all that’s known for now is what was spent and raised by the CAF up through July 20, due to Michigan campaign finance reporting deadlines.
What remains in store, both in terms of funding as well as the challengers’ political strategies, in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 general election remains a matter that’s rife with speculation among observers.
There’s no clear or provable answer — at least not yet.
The campaign finance filing deadline for the current reporting period is Oct. 26, just 10 days before voters head to the polls and when the two challengers and five incumbents will know whether they earned a six-year term on the bench that pays $139,919 per year.
A ‘rental political assassin’
Questions began swirling among insider circles about the challengers’ funding months ago, but Thursday, Sept. 13 became a tipping point when sources first saw a negative television ad paid for by Americans for Job Security, an Arlington, Va.-based 501(c)6 organization targeting McMillen by asking viewers if they would give “probation to a repeat sex offender convicted of two counts of rape.”
“Oakland County Circuit Judge Phyllis McMillen did,” the narrator in the ad states. “Would you give probation to a career criminal? Oakland County Circuit Judge Phyllis McMillen did. After Phyllis McMillen gave the career criminal and sex offender probation, the criminal committed armed robbery. Oakland County Circuit Judge Phyllis McMillen: Criminal neglect. Call Oakland County Circuit Judge Phyllis McMillen and tell her to take protecting our communities more seriously.”
Stephen DeMaura, president of Americans for Job Security and a former executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said last week that his organization frequently wades into local politics in many states, including Michigan. This instance — a national organization taking interest in a Circuit Court race that matters little to anyone outside of Oakland County — is nothing new for Americans for Job Security, he said.
“We do issue (ads) like this all over the country,” he said, declining to say how much his 501(c)6 group spent on the ad buy or who specifically funded it. “We consider it our jobs to hold politicians accountable for their records and words.”
Text below the TV ad hosted on the Americans for Job Security website states the ad refers to the criminal case of Eddie Stephens.
But the ad refers to what is at best an obscure local criminal case, not one that made the front pages of national newspapers — or even daily newspapers in the Detroit area. So who tipped off Americans for Job Security about Stephens’ case, and why?
DeMaura could not be reached earlier this week to answer those questions.
And are the claims in the ad true? Jennifer Murray, spokesperson for the five incumbent judges who are running as the Unity Slate, says no.
Stephens is sitting in the Ryan Correctional Facility, Murray said, serving time for an armed robbery conviction out of Macomb County and an breaking and entering conviction in Oakland County.
Murray said McMillen sentenced Stephens to incarceration twice — first to a year in jail, followed by 90 days in residential treatment and probation on the breaking and entering charge; and the second time for 46 months to 20 years in prison for armed robbery committed while on probation from the breaking and entering conviction.
Murray also said the Oakland County Probation Department recommended only jail time for the breaking and entering charge for Stephens. McMillen added on the residential treatment and probation aspects of the sentence “to give him some supervision after he was released from jail,” marking an increased sentence over what the Probation Department had recommended, Murray said.
Stephens served time for rapes committed in 1978, 1980, and 1983 and was paroled until 2004, Murray said, and he never appeared before McMillen on the rape charges.
“It’s appalling that money from out of state is being used to attack one of Oakland County’s finest judges (McMillen),” Murray said. “Circuit Court judges are bound by the sentencing guidelines set forth by our state Legislature and must adhere to those guidelines when handing down a felony sentence. Through the use of drug courts and other mechanisms, Judge Phyllis McMillen and the other judges of the 6th Circuit Court have been very successful in reducing the rate of repeat offenders in Oakland County, something these misleading attack ads fail to mention.”
Murray also said lawyers are looking into whether Americans for Job Security — which does not disclose the names of its donors — violated its federal tax-exempt status as a 501(c)6 non-profit business association by “spending money to attack a sitting judge in Michigan.”
Americans for Job Security spent at least $133,910 on the ad buy targeting McMillen, documents provided to the Spinal Column Newsweekly show, and Oakland County residents can expect to see the ad running through at least Monday, Sept. 24. Americans for Job Security spent another $16,000 to have the ad play on the WOW cable provider.
“Oakland County residents should be concerned that three big money donors (McKenna, Bryan and Templeton) from out of state are financing the campaigns of the challengers,” Murray said. “Now we’re seeing more than $130,000 from out of state being used to purchase negative attack ads that appear to be on behalf of these two candidates. It’s likely that this money is simply a down payment on the opponents’ races and there’s a lot more to come.”
Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a watchdog group, categorized Americans for Job Security as a “rental political assassin.”
“In the gubernatorial campaign in 2010, they ran ads that had a parallel theme to (those of Republican gubernatorial candidate and former Michigan attorney general) Mike Cox in the act of knee-capping (fellow 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate) Pete Hoekstra” for his support for the so-called “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, he said.
Rollstin and his wife, and Carley’s father, were also significant contributors to Cox’s attorney general and gubernatorial campaigns, to the combined tune of over $10,000 over the course of the last several years, campaign finance records show.
From the Republican National Convention last month, Stu Sandler, Cox’s former political operative, said he had no hand in getting Carley or Rollstin to run. He also said he knows the two challengers well and thinks they would make good Circuit Court judges.
“Americans for Job Security is a 501(c)6 organization, which means it’s a non-profit business association,” Robinson stated in an e-mail to the Spinal Column Newsweekly after viewing the Americans for Job Security television ad. “In my view, it’s a rental political assassin that exists to conceal the identities of political donors who are too cowardly to be accountable for their actions. I believe this operation is abusing its tax status and should be reclassified as a 527 organization, (which) must disclose their donations and report their spending.”
Behind the campaigns
Carley and Rollstin aren’t the only horses that the CAF is backing at this point — funds from that PAC similarly went to The Sterling Corporation, which then used that money to pay for the campaign apparatus of Matthew Davis, a candidate for the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Lansing — but the two Oakland County challengers benefited from the lion’s share of the influx of out-of-state money during the most recent reporting period.
The Sterling Corporation, located at 112 E. Allegan, Suite 700 in Lansing, has the same address that both Carley and Rollstin originally listed on their campaign filing documents, causing many to wonder why they would file to run using the address of a partisan political operation, particularly for what is a non-partisan race.
However, since the challengers filed on May 1, both candidates have listed new addresses for their campaign committees.
Carley’s new campaign committee address is 900 Scotsborough Way in Bloomfield Hills, the address of The Heathers Club, the owner of which is her father, Garry Carley, a significant Cox campaign donor for both his attorney general and gubernatorial campaigns. Rollstin’s current campaign committee address is listed as 248 Regents in Troy, apparently a residential address.
The Sterling Corporation has several other PACs running out of its Lansing office. Those PACs include the Richardville Leadership Fund for state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe); the Supreme Court Majority Fund; and the Pro Life of Michigan Committee. None of those PACs had given money to fund Carley’s or Rollstin’s campaigns through July 20.
Rollstin’s and Carley’s websites were both created by Inspiration Webworks, a Republican web design company run by Bill Carney, the former new media specialist for the state Senate Majority Communications Office under former Senate Majority Leader Michael Bishop. Carney has done web design work for dozens of Republican causes, candidates and elected officials, including many with local ties.
Although both Carley’s and Rollstin’s websites say the sites were paid for by their campaign committees, it appears that they were — at least in part — funded by the hefty donations from McKenna, Bryan and Templeton.
It’s not known whether that is a violation of campaign finance rules.
Conservative ties bind trio of donors
McKenna — a former appointee of President George W. Bush to the U.S. Department of Agriculture who was reportedly paid $265,000 by Karl Rove’s CrossRoads GPS for fund-raising work — is also the former finance director for the Progress for America Voter Fund, a conservative, tax-exempt 527 group. He is the founder, president and CEO of McKenna & Associates, which bills itself as “a strategic consulting firm specializing in management and fund-raising” for businesses and organizations.
The biggest donor of the out-of-state trio by ten-fold, McKenna’s $100,000 donation goes well above what he has contributed in the past to other, better known PACs, according to Federal Elections Commission (FEC) data. The next-largest contribution McKenna reported to the FEC was $25,000 to Boehner for Speaker, a PAC supporting U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner, on May 26, 2011. Beyond that, McKenna contributed $22,500 both to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee on May 17.
None of those comes close to the $100,000 he gave to the little-known Citizens Action Fund.
McKenna & Associates of Arlington, Va. has no known relationship with McKenna Associates, the Northville-based community planning and design firm that does work in some west Oakland County communities.
Bryan ($442,000 total contributed during this election cycle), a retired oil executive on the Leadership Council of the conservative Club for Growth; and Templeton ($565,000 donated this election cycle), the son of the founder of Templeton Mutual Funds, have combined to contribute more than $1 million so far this election cycle to a variety of conservative candidates and causes, according to Open Secrets, a campaign finance watchdog that’s an arm of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Some of Bryan’s donations have gone to FreedomWorks for America, the group whose board chairman is former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey and is largely funded by the Koch brothers; and the Club for Growth, according to the FEC.
Likewise, Templeton has spent big money on the conservative 527 group American Crossroads ($100,000), which works hand-in-hand with Rove’s Crossroads GPS; the Red, White and Blue Fund ($265,000), a Super PAC supporting former presidential candidate Rick Santorum in the GOP primary election campaign; and the Raising Red Action Fund ($200,000), a group devoted to defeating President Barack Obama in November.
But the CAF contributions by McKenna, Templeton and Bryan have raised eyebrows. The Michigan Campaign Finance Network reports that through July 2012, it had only taken in the 35th-highest amount of contributions in the state — a far cry from the PACs representing the kingmakers like big business and labor unions, all of which contribute heavily during election years.
Who clued McKenna, Templeton and Bryan off about even the existence of CAF?
That remains a mystery.
For their part, the sitting judges have been publicly hinting at anticipated attacks in the non-partisan Circuit Court race for some time.
“Our Circuit Court is successful because our courtrooms are free from political or special interests,” Langford-Morris says in one television ad for the Unity Slate, which features Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, a Republican, and former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard, a Democrat, as honorary campaign chairmen.
Some sources have decried the out-of-state money going to bolster the Carley and Rollstin campaigns as a function of the controversial 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case.
An abberation — but why?
CAF’s money in recent election cycles has gone almost exclusively to legislative candidates and incumbents and gubernatorial hopefuls — not judicial candidates.
West Oakland County lawmakers or candidates who have received contributions from the CAF in the past include state Sen. David Robertson (R-Waterford), who received $2,500 from the fund on Oct. 15, 2010, and former 39th state House District Republican candidate Amy Peterman, who took in $5,000 from CAF on Oct. 22, 2008.
The CAF was formed as a PAC on April 28, 2006, and remained largely dormant for a time. Less than a few thousand dollars was spent during its infancy, with significantly less substantial donations than the ones seen in the PAC’s more recent campaign finance statements.
It now takes in individual donations of several thousands of dollars on a regular basis — a far cry from the several thousand dollars total it had received just a few years ago.
‘An election, not an auction’
It’s rare for sitting Circuit Court jurists to face even one challenger, but this time around Potts, Warren, Langford-Morris, Bowman and McMillen are facing two.
Oakland County Clerk/Register of Deeds Elections Division Director Joe Rozell said it’s unknown the last time — if ever — a challenger ousted a sitting Circuit Court judge, but someone last challenged one about 20 years ago and lost handily.
“I bet you not one of these three persons (McKenna, Templeton or Bryan) could pick these (challengers) out of a police line up,” said the Michigan Campaign Finance Network’s Robinson, who also called the interchanging of money between the CAF and The Sterling Corporation part of a “shell game.”
“This is an election, not an auction,” said Murray, the Unity Slate’s spokeswoman. “Oakland County’s judicial seats should not be awarded to the highest bidder, especially ones from out of state.
“It’s important to our families and our communities that our local courts remain free from any political or personal agendas, especially those which originate from out of state. Our Circuit Court seats are not for sale to out-of-state big money donors.”
Messages left over the course of several weeks with McKenna and The Sterling Corporation’s Kletzka, head of the CAF, went unreturned. Carley and Rollstin did not return calls or respond to e-mails seeking comment on Friday, Sept. 14 and Monday, Sept. 17. Templeton likewise could not be reached.
All five incumbents declined to comment for this report, according to Murray.