Michigan's legislature has the weakest financial disclosure requirements in the U.S. That may change

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Posted at 12:31 PM, Feb 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-09 12:31:18-05

LANSING, Mich. — Michigan is the only state in the country with a full-time legislature that does not require lawmakers to disclose any of their finances.

That helped the Mitten State earn an "F" on the Center for Public Integrity's State Integrity Investigation.

"We did a series of stories back in 2017 and found that Michigan legislators, even after they had said, 'I have a conflict,' sometimes still voted on those exact bills where they had a conflict," said Liz Essley-Whyte, a senior reporter with the center.

Now accusations of embezzlement against former Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield are bringing the lack of transparency to light. Chatfield is under investigation for allegedly raising millions of dollars through non-profits, then spending that money on personal travel, food and family.

"We're at a place right now, where 40% of the voters in this country don't believe that the last election was a real election. There is major, major distrust of government and all institutions. There are lots of things we have to do to cure that problem, but the first thing you have to do is admit it, right?" said state Rep. Dave LaGrand, a Grand Rapids Democrat.

To LaGrand "admitting it," is acknowledging how financial corruption continues to be possible.

LaGrand has been promoting a package of bills for years that he believes would put make corruption more difficult.

"I think that foundationally we should all have our elected officials, House, governor, secretary of state, we should be seeing financial disclosures from them annually," said LaGrand. "And they should be reporting on obvious other possibilities, like, are you getting gifts, not just where you're getting money from."

The proposal is called public disclosure of finances. It would give the public access to legislators' finances. The majority of the Michigan House supports this plan.

There are 62 co-sponsors on a bill for legislative financial disclosure, but it has not had the hearing it would need to be voted on. It's held up in committee meetings and instead, an alternative is being offered.

The alternative is a bill was proposed by state Rep. Andrew Fink, a Hillsdale County and Branch County Republican. It proposes "private disclosure," which means legislators would fill out a confidential financial disclosure form to be given to an ethics committee in each chamber.

"They would be non-disclosed during the time that the member is in office, but disclosable upon the member leaving office, that sort of a compromised position," said Fink.

For years, legislation that would have required financial disclosure has stalled in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mike Shirkey has expressed concerns that public disclosure could deter good people from running for office.

"I think that Sen. Shirkey has said publicly what other members have expressed privately," Fink said. "Sometimes just the mere fact that a person say has been successful in business is used as an attack and so some members - I think, understandably - have a concern that making the financial disclosure immediate would disincentivize otherwise good candidates from running for office. I understand that that's not fully satisfactory to somebody like Rep. LaGrand who thinks that if we don't make it immediate, then it really isn't meaningful. I would just say that currently, we have no financial disclosure and that this is a step towards transparency."

LaGrand says that private disclosure creates more opportunities for bribing and corruption between Michigan lawmakers.

Both representatives agree, if some kind of financial disclosure were in place two years ago, the sort of financial improprieties Chatfield is accused of would at the least, have been more difficult.

"We need to make an effort here to demonstrate that the legislature takes it seriously," said Fink, adding that a hearing on his ethics reform bill, and financial disclosure in Michigan, could happen very soon.

"I think a more realistic timeline, given that Sen. Shirkey has indicated that at least some of this package will get some more attention in the near future... I would expect that that means, you know, the next month or six weeks, something like that," he said.

LaGrand said we are at a moment "where we have to be concerned about whether our democracy is going to continue to function. So this could not be more important from my perspective."