Oct. 30 2013 12:00 AM

Bernero campaign under investigation by the Secretary of State’s Office over contributions, though a resolution may not be reached till 2014

Mayor Virg Bernero’s reelection campaign has been mum since allegations surfaced last week that two aides funneled a portion of their contractual pay to the reelection campaigns of Council members Kathie Dunbar and Jessica Yorko.

If they were directed to donate to those campaigns, the donations would have violated state election finance law, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine, or both.

The complaint alleges Bernero campaign manager Christopher Breznau and staffer Elizabeth Hart received unusually large payments from the Bernero campaign in mid-June. Days after receiving the payment, Breznau and Hart each donated $1,000 to Dunbar’s campaign and $500 to Yorko’s campaign.

When asked, no one in the Bernero camp has been able to explain why Breznau and Hart were paid significantly more on June 14 than on any other pay day. Throughout the campaign, the highest amount paid to Breznau at any one time was $1,795 and to Hart was $600. On June 14, Breznau received $3,200 and Hart $2,900.

Breznau and Bernero each said last week they couldn’t explain why because they’re not writing the checks. Campaign treasurer Joe McDonald, a longtime Bernero employee from before he became mayor, said, “Don’t know,” when asked last week about the comparatively high payments in June. Messages left this week with Bernero and McDonald asking who signed the checks did not get a response.

All parties in the case have denied that there was any arrangement, including Dunbar and Yorko.

“There’s no arrangement,” Dunbar said. “People give to my campaign of their own volition.”

Moreover, Bernero said last week:

“This is their pay. How and when they choose to use it is their business.”

The complaint was filed with the Secretary of State’s Office by a woman living in North Carolina. Sheryl Ayers, who filed the complaint, used the Eaton Rapids address of her mother, Carol Gates, in the complaint.

When City Pulse contacted Gates at her home on Friday, she said Ayers already told her that she didn’t want to be contacted by the media. Attempts to reach Bernero and McDonald for further comment this week were unsuccessful. Breznau declined to comment further, referring to previous statements made to the media.

Bernero, Breznau and Hart have until Nov. 22 to formally respond to the claim, state spokesman Fred Woodhams said. Ayers would then have 10 business days to respond if she chooses and the department then has 60 business days to determine whether there was a violation, he added. It could be March until there’s any resolution to the issue.

Breznau is Dunbar’s former intern who went to work for Bernero’s campaign earlier this year. Dunbar said he was helping with her City Council work, but stopped after Council President Carol Wood wouldn’t give him access to the 10th floor of City Hall. Wood said there were administrative procedures that were never completed, but she still was uncomfortable with the idea. “I wasn’t going to allow unfettered access by an intern to the 10th floor 24 hours a day,” Wood said.

Breznau ran unsuccessfully for a state House seat in Clare County last year. In the last reporting period, Breznau was paid $4,502.15 between Sept. 9 and Oct. 4 for “consulting” work, campaign finance records show. In total, Breznau has been paid $14,468.13 for his work on the campaign. Hart has been paid $8,900 for her work on the campaign, records show.

Other ongoing campaign investigations in this year’s election involve 4th Ward candidate Chong-Anna Canfora. In one case, she is alleged to have sent out a campaign flier without specifying on it who paid for it. Also, a complaint was filed against Ingham County Sheriff Gene Wriggelsworth for using county resources in a political campaign (while endorsing Canfora, he posed for a photo in his office with her). Woodhams said those two complaints are still under investigation.

Rich Robinson, director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said last week that it would be difficult to prove any wrongdoing in the Bernero 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.”

In response to the allegations last week, Bernero told reporters that he takes the allegations seriously and that he will “fully comply if there are any outstanding issues.” But he also called it “11th hour negative campaign tactics.”

“I tell my staff this time of year is the silly season,” he said. “It’s called the October surprise.”