NewsMetro Detroit NewsInvestigations

Actions

State secrets: Michigan lawmakers keep personal finances hidden

48 states require some form of financial disclosure, but not MI
Michigan Capitol
Posted at 1:41 PM, Feb 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-18 17:39:47-05

LANSING (WXYZ) — As trust in elected leaders nears an all-time low, some lawmakers in Michigan are fighting measures that would lift our state from the bottom of rankings for ethics and transparency.

Today, 48 states require their elected leaders to provide some form of financial disclosure, where lawmakers reveal sources of outside income, significant investments and property ownership.

The disclosures are intended to reveal conflicts-of-interest among lawmakers and discourage members from voting for or introducing legislation that could benefit them.

“There’s a reason that 48 states have this,” said Sen. Jim Runestad, a Republican from White Lake. “There’s a reason, and it’s that there’s too much dirty dealing that can be done.”

But each time a bill has been brought before the Michigan State House or Senate, opposition has killed it.

States without lawmaker financial disclosure
Only Michigan and Idaho don't require some sort of financial disclosure for lawmakers.

“Voters can’t really know if elected officials like myself are operating to self-enrich if they don’t know where our finances are,” said Rep. David LaGrand, a Democrat from Grand Rapids.

LaGrand has been fighting a losing battle in the state capitol, trying time and again to make financial disclosure the law of the land.

He says lawmakers have a whole host of potential conflicts in their personal finances and investments, including himself. LaGrand, who owns a distillery and bakery, said he leads the Michigan House in abstaining from votes where a potential conflict exists.

But as it stands today, lawmakers are essentially policing themselves when it comes to disclosing potential conflicts.

Michigan isn’t just behind other states, but decades behind. In Ohio, lawmakers have been required to show just how they make their money since 1974.

“I could not believe that that was something that wasn’t required,” said Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, a Democract from Cleveland who’s fought for greater transparency in her state.

“Politicians work for the people, and if people don’t know their influences and what’s impacting them, that’s a disservice to the people of Michigan. “

Just last month, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clark Lake) voiced his opposition to any legislation that would require lawmakers to disclose their finances, saying it gave him “heartburn.”

“I’m pretty dug in in opposition to financial disclosures of senators and representatives,” he said, adding that he thought releasing details about lawmakers incomes would only provide fodder for reporters.

Shirkey, and Republicans in general, have posed the greatest opposition to financial disclosure among lawmakers.

“It’s unnecessary,” he said. “We already have rules in place for eliminating conflicts of interest. And I haven’t had anybody show me where those rules have been spoiled or breached.”

LaGrand says Shirkey isn’t paying close enough attention.

“I have seen legislators advance and work for tailored legislation that would specifically affect the industry in which they have a stake,” he said.

In 2015, State Sen. Darwin Booher (R-Evart) voted to give circuit court judges in Michigan a $12,000 raise. What wasn’t disclosed is that one of them was his daughter.

That same year, Rep. Brandt Iden (R-Oshtemo Twp.) introduced a bill that would limit a landlord’s liability for bed bug infestations, while he was the president of a property management company.

Both lawmakers have since left the legislature.

Reached by phone, Booher said he voted for the pay increase because it did not affect his salary. Iden said his legislation provided accountability for both landlords and tenants.

These potential conflicts that came to light only after votes were cast. Senator Runestad is worried about the ones that never will.

“This is something that has to be done,” he said. “People are getting sick and tired of this kind of garbage.”

Tonight, Runestad is bucking many in his own party by supporting LaGrand’s legislation set to be introduced next week that would make financial disclosure the law in Michigan.

“The voters don’t trust politicians,” LaGrand said. “If we want the people of Michigan to trust elected officials, we have to start modeling the transparency that would warrant trust.”

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at ross.jones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.