Oct. 24 2013 12:00 AM

Campaign finance expert says allegations would be hard to prove without direct evidence

Bernero\'s campaign headquarters on Michigan Avenue. Andy Balaskovitz/City Pulse

Thursday, Oct. 24 — Updated 3:39 p.m.: Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero denies having told his campaign staff to direct their payments as contract employees to Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar's campaign.

The allegations are the subject of a complaint being investigated by the Secretary of State (see below).

When asked this afternoon if he directed campaign manager Christopher Breznau and staffer Elizabeth Hart to donate money they had received as campaign employees to Dunbar's campaign, Bernero said, "No."

"This is their pay," he added. "How and when they choose to use it is their business."

He said the matter is still under review and the campaign will comply with any requests by the Secretary of State. "We take it seriously," he said. 

Campaign finance reports available through the Ingham County Clerk's Office for 2013 show that Breznau was paid $4,365.98 as a contract employee between April 18 and May 31. The next payment to him on June 14 was for $3,200, three days before contributing $1,000 to Dunbar's campaign. Since then he has been paid $2,400 by the campaign, records show, totaling $9,965.98.

Records also show Hart was paid $300 on June 3 before being paid $2,600 on June 14. She was paid $2,400 between June 14 and Aug. 13.

Rich Robinson, director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said it would be difficult to prove any wrongdoing in the case unless there is direct evidence that Breznau and Hart were told to give money to Dunbar's campaign.

"Unless you've got an email message from somebody saying, 'You've got that money, you better give it to Kathie Dunbar,' it'd be pretty hard (to prove) I think. Maybe one will say, 'That's what I did, sorry,'" he said. "In the big scheme of things, it's probably pretty difficult to make that one stick."

The latest campaign finance reports are due to the County Clerk's Office on Friday. 

Thursday, Oct. 24 — The Secretary of State’s Office is investigating whether Mayor Virg Bernero’s campaign staff violated state law by donating to At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar’s re-election campaign, WLNS-TV reports.

Specifically, the state is looking at donations to Dunbar’s campaign from Bernero’s campaign manager Christopher Breznau and staffer Elizabeth Hart days after receiving money from the Bernero campaign.

WLNS reports that up till June 14, Breznau had not received more than $1,800 from the campaign and Hart never received more than $600. On June 14, the Bernero campaign paid Breznau $3,200 and Hart $2,600. Three days later, Breznau and Hart each donated $1,000 to Dunbar’s campaign.

Breznau declined to comment, referring to a prepared statement by Bernero.

“My campaign endeavors to comply fully with all campaign laws and regulations,” Bernero said in a statement.“While I don’t believe a mistake was made, I am reviewing the concerns raised and will provide a timely response. If there is an issue, I will work with the Secretary of State’s office to resolve it.

“My campaign will not be distracted by 11thhour negative campaign tactics. I will continue to focus my efforts on growing jobs, keeping Lansing safe and strengthening our neighborhoods.”

Dunbar said Thursday morning that she was unaware of the complaint until she received a link to the news report this morning.

A letter obtained by WLNS from the Secretary of State to Bernero, Breznau and Hart points to section 44 of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act that says: “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.”

Knowingly violating the law is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 or imprisonment for not more than 90 days, or both.

WLNS reports that Bernero, Breznau and Hart have till Oct. 31 to respond to the allegations.

Bernero is running for a third mayoral term against former City Councilman Harold Leeman Jr. Dunbar is seeking a third term as an At-Large Councilwoman against challengers Brian Jeffries, Judi Brown Clarke and Ted O’Dell.