July 13 2016 08:55 AM

Prosecutor candidate retains group tied to shadowy political nonprofit


(This story has been updated to correct a factual error.)

WEDNESDAY. July 13 — A Democratic candidate for Ingham County prosecutor is being criticized for hiring a campaign group tied to a shadowy political nonprofit known for incendiary campaign rhetoric and tactics.

Patrick O’Keefe hired Grassroots Midwest, a Lansing bipartisan political consulting group, to manage his campaign. Grassroots Midwest is tied to Capitol Region Progress, which has used mailers to attack a number of local candidates in recent campaigns. MoReno Taylor II, who was operations director of the Lansing based Grassroots Midwest, is listed as the Capitol Region Progress’ president on paperwork filed with the IRS. Taylor left Grassroots Midwest late last year.

Capitol Regional Progress sent out mailers last year against Lansing First Ward Councilwoman Jody Washington and her son, Adam Hussain, who unseated A’Lynne Boles for the Third Ward seat.

A mailer attacking Hussain darkened an image of him that made him look menacing. Some thought the intention was to make Hussain, of Middle Eastern extraction, look like a terrorist.

The group also sent out robocalls in both races. Those became the subject of a Federal Communication Commission complaint filed by South Lansing residents. The calls failed to follow the FCC rules related to robocalls.

Capitol Region Progress was also tied to attack mailers against former Lansing City Council President Brian Jeffries, among others. Its targets have often aligned with candidates opposed by Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, who has denied any connection but has not denounced the organization’s tactics.

Capitol Region Progress 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.

O’Keefe said he was unaware of Grassroots’ ties to this type of campaigning.

“When I hired them, I was not aware of any other campaigns run by Grassroots, and I certainly was not aware of them running any negative campaigns,” said O’Keefe, one of four candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in the Aug. 2 primary election.

“As a candidate for public office, I do not condone any form of denigration of another individual based upon race, sexual orientation, or national origin,” he wrote in an email. “As someone with 10 years of trial experience as an assistant prosecuting attorney and 3 years of experience as a defense and appellate attorney, I also do not condone guilt by association.”

In a phone interview, he declined to answer directly if he intended to sever ties with the organization.

“I have a contract with them,” he said.

Both Washington and Hussain said O’Keefe’s relationship with Grassroots Midwest has impacted their decisions to vote for him or endorse him.

“I will not be endorsing him, and I would have,” said Washington. “I have to question the integrity of somebody who aligns themselves with sleazy groups like this.” She added, though, that she would consider changing her mind if he dismissed Grassroots Midwest.

Hussain said O’Keefe’s indirect connection to Capitol Region Progress precludes his endorsement as well.

(An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Capitol Region Progress sent out a mailer attacking Nathan Triplett when he ran for East Lansing City Council in 2015. Also, an earlier version of this story identified MoReno Taylor as working for Grassroots Midwest, but he left last year.)