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Non-Profit Groups, Donations And Political Influence

Michigan Senate Chamber - file photo by Cheyna Roth, Michigan Public Radio Network
Cheyna Roth
Michigan Public Radio Network

Non-profit groups can provide things like backpacks and scholarships. But an analysis from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network shows that money donated to those groups can also be a way to get the attention of a state lawmaker.

The watchdog group’s director Craig Mauger says a majority of state lawmakers have some connection to a non-profit organization. He says they might serve on the board of one the groups that are able to raise money from sources known to the lawmaker, but not the public. Mauger says “If you are able to hide the contributors that you feel would have the most public backlash…why wouldn’t you just have them give to one of these accounts that doesn’t disclose its donors?”

Mauger says it’s hard to determine the full extent of what the non-profit organizations do. He says they don’t have to report in great detail how they spend their money, while campaign groups have more stringent requirements. Lawmakers say the money raised by the non-profit organization pays for things like scholarships, camps for young people and events for veterans. Mauger says while those things sound good, there is still a mystery around it. “We’re left to trust the lawmakers that that’s what they’re using the money for.” 

"We're left to trust the lawmakers that that's what they're using the money for."

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network found money raised by the non-profit groups has been used for mailings that Mauger says “don’t tell you how to vote, but kind of tell you this lawmaker is great,” and highlights their involvement in the community. Mauger says most importantly, the people who donate to these groups “tend to be interest groups that want to build relationships with lawmakers.”

Extended interview with Craig Mauger in WMUK's WestSouthwest podcast 

The report from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network details former state Senator Mike Nofs’ connection to a group called Empower Michigan. Mauger says in 2016, Nofs played a major role in overhauling the state’s energy policy in his position as chairman of the Senate Energy and Technology Committee. At the same time, the Battle Creek Republican was also president of Empower Michigan. A tax filing showed that a non-profit connected to one of the state’s major utilities reported a $20,000 grant to Empower Michigan.

"The people donating to these groups...tend to be interest groups that want to build relationships with lawmakers."

Nofs is quoted by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network as saying that no special considerations were given to the utilities as part of the energy policy overhaul. The former state senator, who could not run for re-election last year due to term limits, also says that he and Empower Michigan followed the rules. Mauger says as far as he can tell, the rules were followed. However, Mauger says the problem is that the rules are “lacking.”

Gordon Evans became WMUK's Content Director in 2019 after more than 20 years as an anchor, host and reporter. A 1990 graduate of Michigan State, he began work at WMUK in 1996.
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