The state’s latest feeble attempt at aninvestigation into the Flint water crisis has us questioning whether Attorney General Bill Schuette is on duty for the people of Michigan, or for his political allies.

Schuette has appointed former Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Todd Flood to spearhead his office’s investigation into whether Michigan laws were broken in the Flint water crisis. Meanwhile, the political money trail shows Flood has donated thousands of dollars over the years to the campaigns of Schuette and Gov. Rick Snyder, both Republicans, as well as a GOP-affiliated political action committee.

At the very least, Schuette’s appointment of Flood presents a perceived conflict of interest. The investigation hasn’t even started and already it’s as contaminated as Flint’s drinking water.

The people of Michigan, especially those who were unknowingly drinking lead-tainted water, deserve nothing less than an independent investigation into why this fiasco happened and how it can be prevented in the future. We have doubts on whether a politically connected campaign donor will deliver the unvarnished truth. And even if he does, his findings will be tainted by the perception that he is a political player and not an impartial investigator.

So far, we’re less than impressed with the two established state reviews of what went wrong in the state’s own oversight of Flint’s 2014 switch to a new drinking water source. On the one hand, you have Snyder’s hand-picked Flint Water Task Force and on the other, the appointment of a political donor by Schuette.

Any claims that these investigations will yield impartial results is tone deaf amid the government distrust that continues to balloon with every revelation of the state’s involvement in the water crisis. Surely there are other former prosecutors – ones who haven’t contributed to Schuette or Snyder’s campaign coffers – who are capable of providing meaningful insight into this crisis.

We’re not questioning Flood’s qualifications or ability. But given the serious questions about Snyder’s administration so far on the matter, even the mere appearance of a conflict casts a cloud over the entire probe.

A new appointment needs to be made. With an emergency manager at the helm of city operations during the switch, and with the state Department of Environmental Quality’s admittedly faulty oversight at least partly to blame for the elevated lead levels in Flint water, a thorough review of the Snyder administration’s role is key to seeking accountability.

An external investigator with zero ties to Michigan politics should lead the probe, or else the findings of this so-called independent investigation are sure to fall flat under the weight of the ensuing public scrutiny.



Three weeks after Michigan state legislators adopted a heavily amended campaign finance bill in the final, frenzied hours of their 2015 session, even some of those who voted for the legislation are unpleasantly surprised to learn what’s in it.

High on the list of surprises is a provision that raises the amount a political action committee can donate to pay for expenses incurred in any statewide campaign, effectively doubling the maximum donation — for the second time in as many years — from $68,000 to $136,000.

Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill into law late Wednesday afternoon over the objections of myriad critics, including legislators from his own party who insisted they’d been duped.

Rep. Dave Pagel, a second-term Republican the southwest corner of Michigan, was among 58 House Republicans who voted to adopt SB 571 just before the House adjourned in the late evening of Dec. 16.

“It’s troubling when you take a vote and later realize that you were ignorant of some facts you should have known,” Pagel told me Wednesday, a few hours before Snyder signed the bill into law.

Pagel said he was misled about the scope of language that bars municipalities and school districts from disseminating information bond proposals and other ballot questions in the 60 days before an election.

I asked him if he realized the 41 pages appended to the original 12-page bill in a last-minute amendment also included a provision doubling the allowable PAC donation.

“I’d have to go back,” he replied.“That wasn’t the portion of the bill I was focusing on.”

Even Sen. Mike Kowall, the veteran White Lake Republican who sponsored the original 12-page bill, seemed taken aback Wednesday when I asked him whether he realized his Republican House colleagues had added an amendment raising the ceiling on PAC contributions.

“Well,” Kowall said after a pause, “I do now.”

The small print

The bizarre circumstances surrounding the passage of SB 571 had led the Snyder administration to move cautiously in deciding whether to sign the bill into law. Indeed, it wasn’t until Dec. 28 — 12 days after its adoption, and about a week after other bills adopted the same day were presented for the governor’s signature — that the controversial campaign finance bill was formally delivered to Snyder’s office.

Republican lawmakers in both chambers have complained that the leaders of their respective caucuses — House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant,  and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-Olivet — failed to brief them adequately about what was in a voluminous eleventh-hour amendment appended to Kowall’s bill, without notice or public hearing, late on Legislature’s last voting day in 2015.

Most have raised objections to the single paragraph that muzzles local governments for two months before an election. Michigan law had previously barred the expenditure of taxpayer funds to advocate for or against passage of ballot proposals, and critics of the new, broader prohibition argue that it unreasonably restricts the flow of information voters need.

But the local government gag provision is only one of several controversial provisions slipped into Kowall’s bill at the last minute, including:

  • Language that permits contributions from PACS and other donors to be applied to expenses incurred in the previous campaign cycle, even if the total amount exceeds the limits applicable for that cycle.
  • Language that forbids employers to deduct money from their employees’ paychecks that is subsequently deposited in a union’s PAC, even if the employee consents to the deduction and the employer has contracted to make it.

Several legislators I spoke to this week insisted they were not aware of either provision, although spokespeople for Cotter and Meekhof insist the complete text of the amended bill was made available to members, however briefly, before the final votes in the House and Senate.

Kowall said he would be amenable to new legislation stripping some of the more controversial language from his amended bill. But he and other GOP lawmakers I spoke to said they weren’t even sure which of their colleagues might be responsible for inserting the last-minute changes, some of which appear to benefit —  or target — specific candidates or special interests.

“Part of this troubling process is you don’t know who’s behind this or what they their motives were,” Pagel said.

Spending tomorrow’s donation today

The biggest mystery in SB 571 lies in the provision doubling the amount donors may contribute to defray a statewide candidate’s expenses in a single election campaign. Most lawmakers insist they were unaware that the bill authorized such a change — perhaps because it appears to leave the existing ceiling on such contributions unchanged.

Until 2013, individual donors could contribute only $3,400 per cycle, with PACs permitted to give 10 times as much. Snyder and Republican lawmakers sustained intense but short-lived blowback two years ago when they muscled through legislation raising those ceilings to $6,800 and $68,000, respectively

SB 571 doesn’t explicitly raise those limits. But it authorizes candidates to accept up to $68,000 from a PAC in one campaign cycle and apply it retroactively to expenses incurred in a previous cycle — even if the same PAC wrote a previous $68,000 check in the heat of that campaign.

So a candidate who didn’t want voters to know how much money he was getting from, say, the Committee to Legalize Pot could cash a $68,000 check from that organization a few weeks before the 2016 election, accept a second donation for the same amount a week after that election, and use both checks to pay off the $136,000 credit card bill he ran up during Campaign ’16.

That’s precisely what former House Speaker Andy Dillon did in 2010 after his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination (although, to be clear, the PAC doubling down on its donation with a post-election check for $34,000 was his own Dillon Leadership Fund, not any PAC advocating the legalization of marijuana).

The Secretary of State said applying the second, post-election check from Dillon’s PAC exceeded the limit, triggering a violation of Michigan law. In a settlement reached late last year, Dillon agreed to refund the second $34,000 contribution and pay a $1,000 fine.

Man of many hats

Dillon was represented in the protracted negotiation preceding the settlement by Lansing elections law specialist Eric Doster, who also serves as general counsel to the Michigan Republican Party. (Dillon had joined the administration of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder as state treasurer after Snyder beat Democrat Virg Bernero in November 2010.)

A little-noticed provision in SB 571 explicitly authorizes the conduct for which Dillon was fined.  I called Doster on Wednesday and asked the GOP counsel if he was responsible for inserting the provision in the last-minute amendment to the bill.

“I had nothing to do with that, and Andy Dillon had nothing to do with that,” Doster said, adding that he continues to believe nothing in Michigan’s current law prohibits the post-election contribution the state ultimately forced Dillon to return.

Doster noted that even in agreeing to pay the fine, Dillon refused to concede that he’d violated the law. “We didn’t admit a damn bit of wrong-doing,” he said.

Doster was cagier when I asked if he’d participated, as one of the GOP’s top campaign strategists, in drafting other controversial provisions of SB 571, such as the one that bars labor unions from collecting political contributions from their members via payroll deduction.

“I don’t know how to respond to that,” he said. “I’m asked about pending legislation all the time.”

“But did you draft the bill?” I asked.

“I think I answered your question,” Doster said.

Transparency mocked

Kowall lamented the perversion of his bill, which he noted had begun as an uncontroversial attempt to streamline the collection of political contributions by both corporate and labor union PACS.

The original 12-page version passed unanimously in the Senate and was recommended for passage by a unanimous, bipartisan vote of the House elections committee. Only after SB 571 quadrupled in size in the waning hours of Dec.16 did members of both parties (albeit primarily Democrats) begin to raise questions about its impact.

The opaque and deceptive prelude to the bill’s passage ought to have prompted Snyder to veto it. This is a governor who loves to boast about his administration’s transparency. Now, he’s signed into law a bill whose contents remain a mystery even to many of those who voted for it.

In giving his blessing to SB 571, ironically, Snyder surrenders even more leverage to GOP bankrollers like the Michigan Chamber and the DeVos family, whose priorities have sometimes been in conflict with the governor’s own.

It’s the donors’ state now; Snyder and his party’s other elected officials are only living in it.

A local United Auto Workers chapter in Warren is singling out workers who decide to opt out of the union.

In a recent UAW Local 412 newsletter obtained by The Detroit News, a list of 43 workers “who choose not to pay their fair share” was published alongside “conditions” that will apply to workers who opt out and no longer pay — or partially pay — union dues.

Listed conditions for “ex-UAW members” range from rudimentary things such as not being allowed to attend union functions or vote in local elections, to having to “pay all unpaid dues and/or dues in arrears as well as an initiation fee” if one decides to rejoin the union.

Singling out workers who decide to leave the union isn’t unprecedented, but it’s seen by some as an intimidation tactic to deter others from leaving — and pressure those who have left to rejoin.

“Pure and simple: It’s intimidation,” said Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy for conservative think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “They’re doing it because they want to incite other union members to pressure those who have exercise their right to start paying the union again.

“It’s a bullying tactic. There’s nothing else to it.”

UAW Local 412 President Jeff Hagler denied the list is used to intimidate workers. He said the union started publishing it to ensure members and union officials know who is no longer permitted to attend union functions, vote in elections and other additional benefits.

“It’s for informational purposes,” he told The Detroit News on Wednesday. “It’s not meant to be intimidating or anything like that.”

An official with UAW International, which is on holiday leave, did not immediately respond for comment.

Kristin Dziczek, director of the industry and labor group at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said she believes the union posting lists of workers who opt-out of the union is “pretty common.”

“Is it meant to pressure workers to stay in the union? I think it could have that effect,” she said. “But it’s certainly a shorter list than the list of members for the purposes of who gets to vote and who gets to go to the meetings.”

Last year, UAW Local 1853 in Tennessee reportedly published a “Scab Report,” listing the names and work stations of more than 40 workers at the General Motors Co.’s Spring Hill Assembly Plant who were non-dues paying workers.

‘Target on my back’

UAW Local 412 has been publishing the names of workers who opt out of the union in its newsletters since at least spring 2014, when a proposal to increase union dues was expected to be voted on during the UAW Constitutional Convention in Detroit.

But the most recent newsletter from UAW Local 412 went a little further and has made at least one worker uncomfortable. It singles out Robert Patchett, a Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV employee who decided to drop out of the union as UAW officials negotiated a new four-year deal with the automaker earlier this year.

“I feel like I’ve got a target on my back now,” said Patchett, a union member of nearly four years who works in the automaker’s design department at FCA US headquarters in Auburn Hills.

UAW Local 412 is an amalgamated unit of engineering, public and private-sector workers. As of 2014, it represented more than 3,100 workers at several companies, including Fiat Chrysler and General Dynamics Defense. Only 1.6 percent of members who are eligible to opt out of UAW Local 412 have done so, according to the newsletter.

Patchett was the first Fiat Chrysler employee to leave UAW Local 412. The majority of previous opt-outs were in the public and health care sectors. Nearly half of the 43 workers on the most recent opt-out list work for McLaren Oakland, a medical center based in Pontiac.

The UAW Local 412 newsletter reads: “Although this person made substantial gains economically from these negotiations, he has chosen to quit paying his fair share. … Robert Patchett will benefit directly from these negotiations by approximately $24,000 during the next four years and bonuses ranging from $4,000 to $13,000, which does not include thousands in profit sharing.”

Patchett said he opted out because he didn’t feel he was being appropriately represented.

“When I worked at GM, I wasn’t part of the union and I didn’t have a problem,” said the former General Motors Co. employee of 19 years. “I come from a family where my father was in a union. The union did some good things; it did some bad things.”

The newsletter also urges UAW members to “not share any tools, knowledge or support for any” of the employees that decide to leave the union.

Hagler, a member of the UAW-Chrysler National Bargaining team, said it’s a “two-way street” and “some of these people, not all, who are choosing to opt out aren’t union-friendly” or cooperative.

Publishing the list doesn’t appear to have deterred workers from opting out of the union. In the spring 2014 newsletter, Hagler listed 14 workers who had opted out of the union. In the most recent list, there were 43 names.

“It shows these bullying tactics aren’t working,” Vernuccio said. “No one likes a bully. They may be helping persuade people to leave the union because of these tactics.”

Hagler said the local union plans to continue publishing the names in future newsletters. “We’re updating it as we go,” he said. “Just so there’s a current list.”

Right to work

Hagler argues it’s unfair to full dues-paying members that workers who opt out of the UAW under Michigan’s so-called “right-to-work” legislation still receive benefits bargained for by the union.

“It’s just not right,” he said. “It’s extremely expensive to represent certain employees. The membership of the union picks up those extra costs.”

Even if autoworkers don’t join a union, they are still included in the bargaining under the legislation because the UAW has exclusive bargaining rights with the Detroit automakers.

The UAW Local 412 newsletter article does not mention “right to work,” but previous newsletters with the lists have. It’s unclear how many members on the list left through the legislation or opted out of paying non-bargaining union dues.

Either way, Hagler said, he is “still required to represent them.”

Prior to Michigan becoming a “right-to-work” state, UAW members were allowed to opt out of the union but still had to pay agency fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining. Now, they can opt out and they continue to receive many of the benefits negotiated by the union.

Vernuccio said the Mackinac Center for Public Policy would like Michigan to adjust the legislation to include what it calls “worker’s choice.” It would free unions from representing those who do not want to pay them and would allow workers to represent themselves. The organization argues it would not change collective bargaining in any other way.

“It would let workers represent themselves,” Vernuccio said. “It’s very simple legislation.”

Michigan passed right-to-work legislation in 2012 that went into effect in March 2013. The legislation forbids requiring workers to belong to and pay dues to a union; it leaves it up to workers to decide. The UAW contracts negotiated for autoworkers at the Detroit automakers earlier this year were the first since Michigan became a right-to-work state.

Although membership nationwide in the UAW grew 3.1 percent last year, the percentage of all Michigan workers in unions fell to 14.5 percent last year from 16.3 percent a year earlier. There are 25 right-to-work states. Among recent converts, Indiana enacted a right-to-work law in 2012; Wisconsin adopted a right-to-work law earlier this year.

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