After his somewhat surprising election to an at-large seat in 2021, Lansing City Council newcomer Jeffrey Brown is now taking heat for alleged ethical lapses during his first 18 months in office. In early June, the city’s Ethics Board unveiled a complaint against Brown, signed by Mayor Andy Schor and five Council members, claiming that Brown overstepped his authority in approaching U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin for federal grant funding and that he improperly asked a local developer and an official of the Lansing Housing Commission for certain favors in exchange for his support on various matters that would come before the Council.
An independent investigation by a Southfield attorney concluded there was insufficient evidence to support two of the complaints against Brown but that he likely broke ethics rules by seeking federal funding from Slotkin’s office without the authority to do so. Despite denials from Brown and key witnesses, the investigative report also “substantiated” that Brown sought to barter his vote for financial favors for a third party. The matter is now on the docket of the Council’s Committee of the Whole for consideration of what action, if any, Council members should take to discipline their colleague for his alleged misdeeds.
We think it’s helpful here to distinguish ordinary political horse trading, a perennial pastime in local, state and federal legislatures, from more nefarious acts where a vote is promised in exchange for cash or other valuable considerations from which the elected official personally benefits. It would be naive to suggest that such direct quid pro quos are uncommon: Deals are made on the regular at the State Capitol and in the nation’s capital in which an influential lobbyist delivers cash or other favors in exchange for a vote.
Brown’s alleged conduct falls in a murkier zone, where he’s asking for financial help not for his personal benefit, but for someone else. We don’t know his relationship to the third parties in question, other than his assertion that they are his constituents, but asking for financial favors on anyone’s behalf in exchange for a vote carries a strong whiff of impropriety and should be avoided by our elected officials.
We’re a bit surprised that the mayor and Council members signed the ethics complaint at all, given that few of them had any direct knowledge of the alleged incidents. Unsubstantiated rumors may be worth further investigation, but they don’t on their own form the basis of a viable ethics complaint. In this regard, we think the mayor and his co-signers overplayed their hand.
One elected official told City Pulse on background that he was acting on advice from City Attorney Jim Smiertka, who reportedly told the official he is mandated to report any violation of the Ethics Code. We’re not lawyers, but it seems a stretch to suggest that a reporting mandate would include filing a complaint based on whatever rumors happen to be flying around City Hall.
Nearly two years after being elected, Brown remains an enigma. We have no idea what he actually does for a living, other than his vague claims of being a business consultant. We do know this: He was chosen by Lansing voters without the benefit of full knowledge of his background and financial track record. We’ll take our share of the blame here at City Pulse for failing to ferret out the facts and share them with voters prior to Election Day. Had voters known in advance about his spotty track record as a businessman, including his 2015 bankruptcy, perhaps they would have opted for a different candidate.
And we’ve always been suspicious of Brown’s political affiliations. His close association with well-known Republican operatives suggests he may not be the progressive he purports to be. After being seen at a Trump event with local Republican Party stalwart Linda Lee Tarver, and enlisting the assistance of a Lansing lawyer with clear ties to the Trump camp to fight the ethics charges, we think Brown may well be a closeted conservative who knew his only chance to be elected to the Council was posing as a left-leaning Democrat. We wouldn’t be surprised if this is one of the reasons Schor and his allies want him gone.
Last week, Brown delivered an impassioned “mea culpa” to his colleagues in a bid to save his Council seat. With five near-certain votes to put him out, the Council member no doubt figured his best and perhaps only shot at political survival was to fall on his sword and beg his colleagues for mercy. Without admitting any specific wrongdoing, Brown asked forgiveness for any and all sins he may have committed and vowed to take whatever punishment his colleagues see fit to dispense.
In the world of ethical breaches, Brown’s alleged offenses seem relatively minor and mostly explainable by his lack of experience in an elected position. We are troubled, though, by his seeming tendency to view politics as a series of transactions, in which votes are promised in exchange for favors, personal or otherwise.
While we continue to harbor suspicions about Brown’s political allegiances and concerns about his conduct, his missteps as a rookie elected official don’t appear to rise to a level that would warrant his removal from office by anyone other than the citizens who elected him. As much as the mayor and his allies may want to put him on the next bus out of City Hall, a vote to admonish Brown for overstepping his authority and a requirement that he receive additional ethics training appear to be all that is needed to dispense with this kerfuffle and move on to more pressing matters facing the city.
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