Sept. 30 2015 12:19 AM

Legal, but untraceable political spending hits Third Ward race

Third Ward Council challenger Adam Hussain is being targeted by an outside organization with a mailer and a robocall that are accusing him of being a puppet of his mother — First Ward Council woman Jody Washington — and attacking him for sending his daughter to school in Okemos.

On Saturday, Washington, too, was targeted by a robocall for allegedly voting against grant money for Lansing parks and “standing in the way of Lansing’s progress.” The call accused her of “looking down” on voters.

Hussain is challenging two-term incumbent A’Lynne Boles, while Washington is being opposed by political newcomer Shelley Davis Mielock.

The political messages may be brutal politics, but they are completely legal and untraceable, experts say.

The organization behind the mailing and robocalls is Capitol Region Progress, which is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)4 “social welfare agency.” It is allowed to solicit and accept individual and corporate contributions but is not required to disclose donors.

Capitol Region Progress was involved in attacks against County Commissioner Deb Nolan last year and former Lansing City Councilman Brian Jeffries in 2013.

All of the targets share one common denominator: They have generally been perceived as being at odds with Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero’s administration.

Bernero has endorsed Davis Mielock and Boles.

Bernero ignored questions emailed to him about whether he is involved in the organization. Instead, he responded with a statement: “Capitol Region Progress has been active in city elections for the past four years, so it is no surprise they are involved in this cycle. While I may not agree with all their tactics, I appreciate that they support a pro-jobs, pro-growth agenda and they care enough about metro Lansing to oppose candidates who they believe are an obstacle to progress.”

While the political issues in both wards generally focus on public safety and development issues, Boles came out of a three-way primary in August seriously weakened by Hussain. He bested Boles 811 to 666.

“[The mailing] is a nice example of the scourge of American democracy: the old ‘issue ad’ fraud,” said Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “The clever mechanics who practice political consulting are making a living orchestrating this crap.”

Robinson said that while “I'm sure any focus group you could assemble would tell you this is a campaign flier opposing Adam Hussain,” the mailer is completely legal.

“It doesn't explicitly tell the reader to vote against him, so it is ‘grassroots lobbying’ in the state of Michigan,” Robinson said.

such as this was protected by the Legislature in 2013, Robinson said.

While the mailer is legal under Michigan law, the group may have run afoul of regulations from the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC requires prerecorded calls to identify who is paying for the message at the beginning of the call and to include a telephone number to reach to organization responsible. Neither of those happened in either robocall.

Boles declined to condemn the intervention by the shadow group, citing its First Amendment rights. She also declined to call on the group to stop.

Lansing political consultant Joe DiSano said the rise of dark money is bad for politics and transparency.

“It’s politics at its worst, ” he said.

He called for more transparency in spending.

“A whole lot of sunshine would cleanse the political soul,” he said.

Robinson said Democrats and Republicans have a “history of exploiting this technique to provide anonymity for cowering donors who, like vampires, are terrified of sunshine."

“This piece shows that those slithering funder/puppet-masters who fear accountability for their actions want to own nonpartisan municipal elections as well,” Robinson said.

“I think it makes the public’s job more difficult,” said Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, the county’s top election official. She has no ability to force the organization to disclose its donors. “It’s concerning because we don’t know who paid for these ads. I value transparency in local elections, but 501(c)4s don’t allow for that.”

She said the mailer “looks like campaigning to me.”

Who funds the organization is a secret right now. Moreno Taylor, II, operations director of the Lansing based Grassroots Midwest, is listed as the organization’s president on paperwork filed with the IRS.

Grassroots Midwest is a bipartisan political strategy consulting group based in Lansing.

When reached for comment last week, he said he would call back with more information. He didn’t call back or respond to queries by email and social media.

Adrian Hemond, Taylor’s boss at Grassroots Midwest, was identified by political operatives in the city on the Third Ward robocall (the First Ward call was voiced by an unidentified woman).

He declined to comment on his “company’s business.” He acknowledged that Taylor had received the messages from City Pulse and had told Hemond about them.

At issue, so far, is a mailer sent to Third Ward voters last week accusing Hussain of being controlled by his mother, First Ward Councilwoman Jody Washington. Both Washington and Hussain condemned the mailer.

The robocall received by residents in the Third Ward attacked Hussain for sending his daughter to school in Okemos and for alleged “attacks” on the Lansing schools.

Hussain said his daughter does attend an Okemos school, but he said it is not because of political differences with the district. Rather, he said it was a practical decision: His wife teaches in Okemos and he teaches at Waverly Middle School. Getting her to school in Lansing was too difficult logistically.

A’Lynne Boles, the two-term incumbent in the Third Ward, has a daughter who attends a private school in Lansing.

Washington refused to comment on allegations made against her in the robocall in the First Ward.

Some are speculating Bernero is behind the organization and attacks.

“I know the mayor is behind it,” said Art Luna of the UAW 602. He said he had no evidence of Bernero’s involvement other than “his actions.” Luna is heavily involved in union-related politics in Lansing, including participation in selecting candidates for endorsement by organized labor.

At-Large City Council candidate Harold Leeman Jr. said Bernero was the only person “who can raise that kind of money for that kind of group.” He called on those behind the attacks and Capitol Region Progress to step forward. “It’s just a front,” he said of the group. “It’s wrong.”

DiSano said the expenses for the two robocalls and the one mailer would be between “$2,000 and $5,000,” depending on how many calls were made and how many mailers were produced.

Campaign finance reports filed with the county clerk show Boles’ campaign raised $5,150 before the August primary, while Hussain had raised $7,554.

Bernero representatives did not immediately return an email inquiry on what role Bernero may have played. He has previously denied involvement with the group but applauded it for supporting progress in Lansing.

Mielock, who is challenging Washington. called the intervention by the group “unfortunate.”

“I’m running a clean campaign,” she said.

“People should run on their merits.”

She declined to call on the group to disclose its donors.