The messy intersection of dark money and Detroit politics

September 27, 2021, 11:33 PM by  Violet Ikonomova

Clockwise from upper left: Duggan, screengrab from an Our Neighborhoods First anti-Adams ad, Our Neighborhoods First billboard promoting Prop N in 2020, Save Detroit Jobs mailer promoting an alternative to Prop A in 2016.

Players with ties to a nonprofit that may be under FBI scrutiny in a Detroit City Council probe are using a different secretive fund to aid Mayor Mike Duggan’s re-election effort.

The nonprofit, Save Detroit Jobs, is tied to Councilmember Scott Benson and his top aide, whose homes and offices were raided earlier this month by FBI agents on the hunt for bank, campaign finance and 501c4 social welfare organization records, among other things.

State business records show two people associated with that group are also involved with the dark money nonprofit, Our Neighborhoods First, which last year helped sell voters on a new tax to address the city's blight, but has since pivoted to helping Duggan with attack ads against his opponent, Anthony Adams. Neither is required to disclose its donors.

The ads are the latest in a series of dark money- and corporate-backed efforts aimed to defeat progressive initiatives and candidates in Detroit.

Adams, who was Detroit’s deputy mayor under Kwame Kilpatrick, has positioned himself politically to the left of Duggan, criticizing what he describes as an inequitable agenda that gives breaks to corporations and developers and burdens average citizens. The Benson-tied Save Detroit Jobs meanwhile focused on defeating Prop A, a 2016 grassroots community benefits ordinance that would have required significant concessions from developers receiving city incentives. It paid Benson chief of staff Carol Banks more than $11,000, much of it in unspecified reimbursements, according to campaign finance records the organization filed before it received retroactive tax-exempt status from the IRS.

Both nonprofits list Impact Church pastor Keenann Knox as an officer and were incorporated by Dykema attorney W. Alan Wilk, who is also a lawyer for the Duggan campaign.

Our Neighborhoods First and the Duggan campaign also share a record keeper and government compliance officer in Dykema’s Renae Moore.

Duggan campaign manager Alexis Wiley, Wilk and Knox did not respond to requests for comment. Benson's lawyer and Banks have previously declined to discuss Save Detroit Jobs with The Detroit News and Free Press, which first reported its dealings.

“People are tired of the corruption, they’re tired of the dark money PACs, and they need to vote this guy out,” Adams said of Duggan.

The new attack ad by Our Neighborhoods First calls out Adams for moving to the suburbs after resigning as Detroit school board president in 2011 and for voting in the Republican presidential primary in 2012.

"After nearly a decade far from the city, Mr. Adams came back to town, buying a house on an island where it's tough to find him," the ad, which appeared on Facebook, says of the Jefferson-Chalmers resident. "Now, Mr. Adams wants to lead the city he chose to leave ... but when the chips are down, he'll most likely high-tail it out of town."

Adams called the ad “full of misrepresentations.” He resigned from the school board after its power was usurped by a state-appointed emergency manager and said he cast a strategic “crossover” vote in the open 2012 primary to help then-president Barack Obama’s re-election prospects.

(In a twist of irony, Wilk, the Duggan campaign attorney who incorporated the group leading the attack, is a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association and has worked for John Engler, George W. Bush and other conservatives.)

Though 501c4s like Our Neighborhoods First are barred from engaging in “express advocacy” like advising who to vote for or against, a similarly structured dark-money group that in 2018 encouraged voters to “send” a number of Duggan-backed legislative candidates “to Lansing” was found not to have violated any laws in an investigation by state election officials.

The mayor has described Adams’ long-shot campaign as “100% hate and divisiveness” and refused to participate in any debates against him, a departure from the last two election cycles. He defeated Adams handily in the primary, and doesn’t need extra help going into Nov. 2, said Ed Sarpolus, a political consultant and director of Target-Insyght polling.

But Sarpolus said the mayor also doesn't need bad optics, particularly amid a public corruption probe involving three councilmembers, all of whom are his allies.

“I don’t know why Duggan would go down this path,” he said. “Anthony Adams is not going to win.”

Our Neighborhoods First has a number of ties to the mayor. In addition to Knox, it’s led by current and former Duggan appointees Lorna Thomas, chair of the Public Lighting Authority, and Betty Brooks, an ex-Detroit police commissioner whose term expired in 2020. The mayor goes back with both: Thomas was on the Detroit Medical Center board when he was the hospital system's chief executive and advised him during his first mayoral campaign, in 2012. Duggan has meanwhile called Brooks a "dear friend" of "probably 30 years." Neither responded to requests for comment.

Our Neighborhoods First also has a similar incorporation pattern and structure as another key Prop A opponent from 2016, Detroit Jobs First. Duggan also opposed the initiative.

Sarpolous said money for both likely comes from outside of the city, from businesses and other well-connected sources.

Save Detroit Jobs raised more than $100,000 in 2016, campaign finance records show. It came from businesses and groups including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan; Turn Around Wayne County PAC, whose record keeper is also Renae Moore and donors include the Clark Hill law firm and Matthew Morouns’ Central Transport; and the Schostak Family PAC, which primarily gives to Republican candidates and is affiliated with former state GOP chairman Bobby Schostak.

Benson answered for one of Save Detroit Job's controversies — its use of a photo of the late Coleman A. Young — in a media release issued by the group. Two additional staffers from his council office were paid between about $1,500 — $3,200 by the organization to distribute literature.

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