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Michigan lawyer seeks ruling on lobbyist-gifted tickets after News investigation

Craig Mauger, The Detroit News on

Published in News & Features

LANSING, Mich. — Bob LaBrant, the former general counsel for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, has asked Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office to rule on whether the system lobbyists have used to secretly provide event tickets to lawmakers is legal.

LaBrant's request on Tuesday came a day after The Detroit News released the findings of an investigation into personal financial disclosures filed by lawmakers and the flow of sports and concert tickets from lobbyists to state officeholders. Michigan law bars registered lobbyists from providing legislators with gifts valued at more than $76, but lobbyists have found ways around the prohibition.

One of their main strategies, detailed by The News, has been securing tickets to marquee events for lawmakers and then asking the lawmakers, through private letters later, to reimburse the price of the tickets over $76, according to more than 10 sources with direct knowledge of the arrangements. Despite the letters, it's unclear how often reimbursements to lobbying firms and interest groups are made.

In LaBrant's request for a ruling, he argued the reimbursement system didn't comply with Michigan law.

"The department in responding to this question needs to make it abundantly clear that reimbursement plays no role whether a gift is a gift," LaBrant wrote. "$76 means $76.

"It seems that the political reforms enacted post-Watergate, campaign finance reform and lobby reform are evaded, ignored and are on the verge of becoming dead letters. The reimbursement theory cannot be allowed to subvert the gifts limits of the Michigan lobby law."

LaBrant said past court decisions determined that reimbursements didn't cure violations of Michigan's campaign finance law.

Rep. Samantha Steckloff, D-Farmington Hills, acknowledged last week that, in the past, lobbyists helped her get tickets to Detroit Lions games, but she personally paid for any cost over the gift threshold.

In response to LaBrant's request, Benson's office could issue a binding declaratory ruling or an informal interpretive statement. A spokesperson for Benson, who is Democrat and who has campaigned on increasing ethics standards in Lansing, didn't immediately respond Wednesday morning to a request for comment.

 

Eric Doster, another Michigan campaign finance expert, told The News recently the reimbursement system for tickets is perfectly legal to avoid violations of the gift ban.

Likewise, Steve Linder, a longtime political consultant who has advised lawmakers in Lansing, said people have been using the reimbursement strategy for tickets for decades.

"The law was silent on that," Linder said.

It was lawyers, including LaBrant, who previously said reimbursing the cost of a ticket over the gift limit made the arrangement legal, Linder contended.

LaBrant denied that he had previously said reimbursements made ticket exchanges legal. He mentioned a 2006 determination on a similar subject by then-Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, a Republican who found lobbyists specifically could not share the cost of a round of golf for an officeholder to circumvent the gift limit.

Saying reimbursements made the tickets legal was similar to robbing a bank, later taking money back and saying "no harm, no foul," LaBrant said.

"How could somebody think this is legal?" LaBrant asked.

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