You may not have noticed an unusual aroma wafting around Lansing City Hall these days, the one that smells like an inside deal — funded by city taxpayers — to prop up Mayor Andy Schor at a challenging time in his tenure. We refer to the recent hiring of Teresa Bingman, who previously served as a high-level aide to former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and who is now employed by Vanguard Public Affairs, a Lansing-based public relations and political consulting firm. Bingman, an attorney, was ostensibly hired to help Schor develop a racial justice and equity plan in the wake of fierce criticism over his administration’s handling of race-related matters, including the exodus of several Black city officials. On the surface, everything appears to be on the up and up, and for a good cause — making Lansing a more inclusive and equitable community. But there is more to the story.
In an amazing bit of happenstance, at the same time that Schor signed Bingman to her $63,000 consulting gig, Vanguard decided to launch “Lansing NOW” — a pro-Lansing social media publicity campaign that supposedly has nothing whatsoever to do with polishing Schor’s apple in the runup to next year’s mayoral contest. When you have a moment, we also have some terrific lakefront property available for sale near downtown. Serious inquiries only, please.
The Lansing NOW campaign, whose name just happens to mirror Schor’s “Lansing’s Time is Now” slogan, will be funded by anonymous contributions to Vanguard’s new 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization. For the unfamiliar, the tax-exempt 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organization is a popular political tool for collecting undisclosed, unlimited cash contributions — commonly referred to as “dark money” — then using the funds to run advertisements that aim to influence voters.
Social welfare organizations are not permitted to explicitly advocate for or against a candidate, but that’s just a technicality. They can’t urge people to vote for a particular candidate, but they can shower praise on a candidate — or savage them. When you see an ad that says, “Call public official X and tell them to stop wasting our money,” there is a good chance it was paid for by a dark money 501(c)(4). To be fair, Vanguard isn’t the only organization that uses the 501(c)(4) approach to influence elections. The tax-exempt groups have sprouted like weeds in Michigan and elsewhere while the elected officials who benefit from them steadfastly refuse to rein them in.
Vanguard is no stranger to Lansing politics or to the mayor’s race. In 2016, the firm’s president, T.J. Bucholz, was the spokesman for two shadowy, Facebook-based interest groups, Reform Lansing and No Secret Lansing Deals, that aimed to rough up then-Mayor Virg Bernero in the runup to the 2017 mayoral race, presumably to benefit Schor’s expected entry into the contest. Bernero himself was well acquainted with the benefits of dark money slush funds. He caught significant flak (especially from this paper) for his apparent ties to Capital Region Progress, another shadowy 501(c)(4) organization that launched campaign attacks against City Council candidates he was hoping to unseat in 2015. Bernero claimed at the time that he had no connection to the group.
The close relationship between Schor and Vanguard was also front and center during the 2017 mayoral contest. After Schor claimed that Vanguard “volunteered” to help with his campaign kickoff announcement, the firm was subsequently paid $5,000 for its services. At about the same time, Schor hired Vanguard employee Chelsea Coffey to manage his campaign. Coffey was subsequently hired to work in the Mayor’s Office.
Returning to the present case, let’s connect the dots: Bingman is an employee of Vanguard Public Affairs. Bingman’s law firm, a separate entity, landed a lucrative no-bid contract with the city. A few days later, Vanguard launched the Lansing NOW campaign. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “In politics there are no accidents. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.” So we can’t help thinking that when Mayor Schor and Bucholz both say it was just a coincidence that Bingman was hired by the city while Vanguard simultaneously launched a 501(c)(4) dark money fund to spread positive vibes about Lansing, we truly have to wonder if they take us for fools. Schor’s recent statement to City Pulse that he “didn’t know much about” the PR campaign strains credulity.
Then there is the matter of how Bingman’s contract was awarded. The city’s purchasing ordinance generally requires city officials to seek competitive bids for contract services by issuing a Request for Proposals, or RFP. Bingman’s contract skirted this requirement by running it through the City Attorney’s Office, which is exempt from the purchasing ordinance when “hiring outside counsel or expert witnesses to assist the Law Director in legal matters.” Except that Bingman obviously wasn’t hired for that purpose. She was hired to help Schor develop a racial justice and equity plan. While it is fair to assume there are legal issues intertwined in such a plan, using the City Attorney’s Office to award a lucrative no-bid contract to Bingman strikes us as an end run around both the spirit and the letter of the purchasing ordinance.
We’re surprised that City Attorney Jim Smiertka, a model of integrity and ethical conduct, would allow his office to be used to circumvent an important city ordinance. Even if there is no direct connection between Bingman’s work and Vanguard’s thinly veiled, pro-Schor fundraising and advertising campaign, the cozy relationships therein create the appearance of an improper quid pro quo, with Schor agreeing to hire Bingman and Vanguard agreeing to run political interference for the mayor.
To be clear, we are entirely supportive of the important work Bingman was hired to lead. She brings impressive credentials to the table, but she is far from the only consultant capable of doing the work. That’s why the city should have issued an RFP to ensure that the awarding of a $63,000 contract using taxpayer funds was offered transparently and competitively to any and all qualified bidders.
As the 2021 mayoral campaign season unfolds, we’ll be watching closely for more political shenanigans from Vanguard and its dark money slush fund. You should, too.
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