(This story was updated at 3:46 p.m.)
THURSDAY, Oct. 1 — An Ingham County Commissioner is denying wrongdoing after he was accused this week of crossing multiple county ethics policies and state campaign finance laws by requesting campaign contributions to defeat his incumbent Republican colleague.
The Ingham County Board of Commissioner’s Democratic Caucus met last week for a virtual meeting “in which donations to a specific candidate and campaign operations were discussed during public meetings, using County resources,” according to a warning letter sent out by County Clerk Barb Byrum — herself a Democrat — after she was alerted to the meeting.
It was a comment from Democratic Commissioner Mark Grebner that triggered her concerns:
“The time to donate to a campaign is one that’s on the edge of winning, where a little bit of money might help. And the only one that falls into that category in the whole county is Brandon Currin, who is a real prospect to knock off Randy Maiville,” Grebner suggested. “So, if the Caucus wanted to, a little bit of money there would go a long way. A few hundred more pieces of mail might actually elect him.”
Currin, a Democrat, is challenging Maiville, a Republican, for a third term this November representing Ingham County's 6th District, a mostly rural (and Republican-leaning) expanse near Holt and Mason. Grebner is also employed by a firm that has a consulting contract with Currin.
Byrum questioned the conversation, noting that campaign-related discussions — especially those that center on donations — are possibly illegal when they use taxpayer-funded resources. And since the meeting used county technology and county staff, Byrum labeled it a “red flag.”
“County resources should never be used to fund-raise for a campaign committee, whether it’s the individual commissioners’ campaign committee or their friends’ campaign committee,” Byrum told City Pulse. “My staff and their time is worth more than he thinks. It had to be recorded and uploaded online. Minutes were recorded. That’s time.”
Grebner contends his “suggestion” to send donations to Currin’s political campaign was a legal one. He sharply criticized Byrum for alleging otherwise and argued that his First Amendment rights trump any state or local statutes regarding political discussions at open meetings — especially within Caucus meetings, which are exclusively designed to promote partisan ideals.
“It’s unconstitutional on its face to require a political body not discuss politics,” Grebner said. “The Caucus only exists as a partisan body. It’s goal is to elect people to office. The law cannot prohibit that political discussion, nor can it ban political organizing.”
Grebner repeatedly emphasized that he has a law degree while Byrum does not. He also told commissioners that he personally donated $250 to Currin, urging his colleagues to do the same. County attorneys have also reportedly weighed in on the topic in a yet-to-be released opinion.
Commissioner Mark Polsdofer quickly attempted to “put the kibosh” on the fledgling conversation before Democratic Caucus Chairman Derrell Slaughter moved to adjourn the virtual meeting minutes later. A video of the meeting is available on the county website.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to do this,” Commissioner Victor Celentino said.
Maiville said he hadn’t watched the recording of the meeting, but based on hearsay was willing to label Grebner’s comment as a “clear violation” of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act. Grebner concedes that he used county resources, but labeled it an “insignificant” amount.
Byrum has also repeatedly voiced concern about the political nature of the business discussed at Caucus meetings. Grebner’s comment was only the latest chapter, she explained. Her chief concerns: possible violations of both county ethics policies and state campaign finance laws.
The commission’s ethics policy states that commissioners should never solicit campaign contributions “using County resources” — which arguably includes recorded county meetings. It also states commissioners should never use “county media” for political campaign purposes.
The Political Activities of Public Employees Act also prohibits public employees from engaging in any political activities on behalf of a candidate or issue in connection with either a partisan or a nonpartisan election during the hours when the employee is being paid for the performance of duties. Byrum said employees from her office were compensated for their usual meeting work.
The Michigan Campaign Finance Act also prohibits the use of public funds or resources for the purpose of influencing the nomination or election of a candidate — much like Grebner might have done last week by requesting his Democratic colleagues make campaign contributions while using a public, county-facilitated Zoom call with several other Democratic commissioners.
Byrum said there will be no consequences for the alleged violation unless it’s formally reported to her office or to state elections officials, neither of which had actually been done by this afternoon. Grebner also maintains there won't be any consequences, but instead because he's constitutionally protected to engage in political speech at the Democratic Caucus meeting.
“This serves as a warning to them to stop using county resources for political purposes,” Byrum said.
Maiville, the most obvious candidate to file a complaint against Grebner or the Democratic Caucus, said he isn’t ruling it out, but he’s waiting until the next Caucus meeting to determine how he will proceed. No action has been taken on an alleged ethics policy violation.