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Lawmakers claim public utility is using dark money to push them out of office

Michigan Municipal League

Questions are being raised about who is funding television ads targeting two mid-Michigan Republican lawmakers.

The lawmakers say they believe Consumers Energy is behind the ads, because of their support for so-called “energy freedom.”

The controversy is centered on two groups: Faithful Conservatives for Michigan and Citizens for Energizing Michigan’s Economy, which are both supported by dark money. That’s money that is spent by social welfare nonprofits. They do not have to publicly identify their donors, as long as they don’t directly encourage voters to support or oppose specific issues or candidates.

A report from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network tracked over 160-thousand dollars in spending from the two groups on ads running in the districts of Republican state representatives Tom Barrett and Gary Glenn, who are both up for re-election.

Craig Mauger is executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which tracks money in politics.

“They are issue ads. So they talk about issues and don’t tell you how to vote and that’s how they avoid having to disclose their money.”

Mauger said the ads each name the candidates running against Barrett and Glenn - but never explicitly identify them as candidates.

“The ones running in the Lansing area talk about the Energy Law Overhaul in 2016 and they are thanking Brett Roberts for his support of the energy law. The other set of ads talk about bills that are currently pending before the legislature and they talk about that these bills will affect farmers - like - the ad uses the language - conservative farmer Kevin Daley.”

Kevin Daley said he did not approve the ads and says the group took photos from his website without his permission. But, he says, the ads are positive and support good legislation so he has no issue with them.

And a spokesperson for Brett Roberts said the ads have no connection to his office in any way.

Mauger said it’s unusual to see this much spending so early in the race - and it’s hard to know what impact that may have on voters.

“I think that’s difficult to say. The second point, the one that people don’t talk about and may be just as important in my mind, is do these ads affect the people who are sent to Lansing to make these decisions?”

For State Representative Barrett, the intended effect of the ads, which he says are funded by Consumers Energy, is explicit.

“They do not want me winning a position in the state senate because they see me as a threat to their unchecked monopoly status in our state.”

Barrett said it’s clear the ads from Citizens for Energizing Michigan’s Economy are funded by Consumers Energy.

“Consumers has acknowledged in the past that they’ve funded this organization so it’s very reasonable and practical to assume that they would continue to, especially given the content of the ads.”

A spokesperson for Consumers Energy would not say whether they have funded the ads or the group, but in a written statement said quote “We will continue to engage in the political process by supporting pragmatic policies that are focused on safe, reliable, and affordable energy for Michigan.”

A similar group, Faithful Conservatives for Michigan, has run ads in the district of State Representative Gary Glenn. Glenn said he has been a vocal advocate of energy choice, something he believes is threatening to Consumers Energy.

“So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why they would want somebody who would not threaten their monopoly status and that they don’t want somebody like me who has been one of the most vocal critics of their monopoly status.”

A spokesperson for Consumers Energy would not say whether they have funded Faithful Conservatives for Michigan but said Glenn has made quote “violent and uncalled for” statements likening Consumers Energy to terrorists and saying he would like to quote “Shoot the terrorists.”

Glenn does not deny making these comments.

The Consumers spokesperson also said quote “our customers and his constituents benefit from a civil discourse.”

State Representative Barrett said he’s been respectful in his critiques of Consumers - and the company is trying to push him out anyway.

“I’ve never been disrespectful of their business but I have been willing to ask questions and inquire about certain circumstances and apparently they’ve found that threatening to their business model.”

Glenn said the group in his district is on track to spend three-quarters of a million dollars before the primary. He says that kind of spending should be more directly tied to the companies trying to influence elections.

“It’s a deceptive thing. People in the thumb and other areas that these same ads are on are wondering ‘why is Kevin Daley on the radio all the time and who is paying for it?”’

Glenn said he plans to introduce legislation to require utilities with a guaranteed share of the market to report how much money they spend on political advertising.