State government’s financial disclosure rules lack teeth

Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson are right that Michigan’s transparency requirements of elected officials are a joke. Efforts by their fellow Democrats to strengthen them fall solidly into the lame category.

Until April, Michigan was one of two states that didn’t require financial disclosure from lawmakers and other politicians.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature attempted a fix with the passage of a disclosure bill that requires the bare minimum of actual disclosure.

The toothlessness of the new law was revealed last week when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer filed her report, four days after the law took effect. The governor disclosed more than $2.3 million in investment and retirement assets, as well as ownership interest in Super Deluxe LLC, a family office to manage her personal matters, according to her lawyer.

What she didn’t make public are spousal assets, which are shared property in Michigan. At Whitmer’s insistence, the law doesn’t require disclosure of assets held by a husband or wife of an elected official.

So, it is impossible to know the true amount of a politician’s household wealth or where it is invested.

Benson and Nessel testified Thursday together before the House Ethics and Oversight Committee on the need for stronger disclosure requirements. Although they don’t disclose nearly as much as the governor does.

Benson previously raised concerns specifically about “loopholes” in leaving out spousal information, and Nessel called concerns about the absence of spousal disclosures “valid.”

Nessel also argued Michigan’s weak transparency requirements are enabling public corruption of the sort that led to charges last week against former Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield and his wife, Stephanie.

The pair are accused of embezzling funds from non-profits linked to Chatfield’s office.

Democrats introduced legislation in March to tighten controls on dark money funding and shed more light on lobbyists and financial disclosure.

The bills would require nonprofit 527 and 501(c)4 organizations to register with the Secretary of State with information about the group and its key office holders made public online — although none of these requirements would take effect until 2026.

The legislation would also prevent lawmakers from becoming lobbyists within a year of the end of their legislative term, with certain exceptions. That’s weaker than the two-year pause Republicans proposed last session.

And it would seek to close a longtime loophole by requiring lawmakers to disclose gifts from lobbyists to legislative staff.

These are important measures the Legislature should pass. But they still fall short of the gold standard for transparency and accountability rules.

Specifically, bills passed last session left out requirements that lawmakers disclose information about a spouse’s employer, income and exclusively held assets.

Without including spousal assets in disclosure requirements, a back door remains wide open for influence peddling and profiting from public office.

Voters in 2022 passed a ballot measure they were told would make Michigan among the leaders in demanding transparency from its officials.

So far, the Legislature has not met those expectations in adopting the enabling legislation.

It should stop cutting corners and finally adopt laws that require real reporting and accounting of all the funds elected officials and candidates can access.

— The Detroit News


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