Dark money network funding marijuana local ballot proposals
Voters in small towns and cities across Michigan are deciding tomorrow whether to lift local bans on marijuana businesses. But the funding sources behind many of these proposals are hazy.
Eaton Cares Coalition, Shiawassee Cares Coalition, Southeast Michigan Patients Advocates Coalition.
The names vary, but these political organizations have some things in common. They all list the same treasurer, and they're all behind ballot measures this November that seek to allow more cannabis businesses in Michigan. It's not clear, however, who's funding this network of pro-cannabis proposals, which are on ballots Tuesday in small Michigan towns including Potterville, the city of Perry and Rockwood.
Medical and recreational marijuana use is legal in Michigan, but local lawmakers can decide whether to allow the lucrative business in their jurisdictions.
Voters can overturn that decision from their elected officials, however, if enough signatures are gathered to bring the issue to the ballot.
Group with unknown financial backers sues over Rockwood proposal
In Wayne County, a group called the Southeast Michigan Patients Advocates Coalition sued this year to make sure a measure allowing medical marijuana facilities would be on Rockwood's November 2 ballot.
In campaign finance documents, the coalition lists Johnathen Tebbutt of Oak Park as treasurer. Tebbutt did not respond to a request for comment.
He’s also listed in other counties as treasurer of the Shiawassee Cares Coalition, which is backing a measure to allow medical marijuana facilities in the city of Perry, and the Eaton Cares Coalition, which is trying to get voters to open Potterville’s door to recreational weed businesses.
The Eaton Cares Coalition hasn’t disclosed any donations. It sought a waiver from reporting, which is allowed under Michigan law if a group expects to take in less than $1,000. And the only donations disclosed by the Southeast Michigan Patients Advocates Coalition and the Shiawassee Cares Coalition are $86,467 and $10,834 respectively in in-kind donations, meaning donations of goods or services, from a nonprofit called the Coalition for Michigan Patients.
Those donations include printing, services from political consultants, services from law firms and what appear to be services from a circulator who gathered petition signatures from registered voters.
Nonprofit giving to groups doesn’t disclose donors
But the Coalition for Michigan Patients hasn't disclosed its donors and isn't required to do so. It registered as a nonprofit in May 2021 with Tebbutt listed as the incorporator, Michigan records show.
Instead of a person, the Coalition for Michigan Patients lists yet another company, called Registered Agents, Inc. as its registered agent — a step that makes it more difficult to track the group’s origins, according to Anna Massoglia, a researcher with the watchdog group OpenSecrets.
“This seems to have a lot of the trappings of a dark money network where groups are hiding the ultimate source of funding for the operation,” Massoglia said.
Rockwood Mayor Dan Guzzi says he personally opposes having marijuana establishments in the city but will support the will of the voters if they choose to allow them. He doesn’t believe the people backing the proposal are local and is wary after hearing the group isn’t disclosing its donors.
“It just makes it more shady than it has been,” Guzzi said.
A group called Jobs For Rockwood sued the city clerk last year over a ballot proposal that ultimately didn’t make it to the 2020 ballot. Jobs for Rockwood used several of the same attorneys as the Southeast Michigan Patients Advocates Coalition, which sued the clerk successfully this year.
Jobs for Rockwood follows a familiar pattern. It reported $19,779 in in-kind donations at the end of 2020 from an entity with unknown funders called Jobs for Michigan Communities. Jobs for Rockwood got multiple notices for failing to file reports on time in 2021. Wayne county’s clerk denied a request from the group to dissolve the committee this year.
Sam Pernick, treasurer of Jobs for Rockwood, did not respond to a request for comment. He was treasurer for at least 18 pot-related proposals on the November 2020 ballot, the Detroit Free Press reported in February, and racked up fines for failure to late disclosure reports.
Clawson voters weighing in on two separate pot proposals
Clawson voters are deciding in November on two separate marijuana-related proposals and Pernick is connected to one of them.
He’s treasurer of Jobs For Clawson, which is asking voters this November to approve up to 11 recreational marijuana facilities in the city this year after an unsuccessful attempt to get a cannabis-related measure on the November ballot.
Clawson City Council Member George Georges says Jobs for Clawson sent representatives to a council meeting to tout potential tax revenue from the marijuana industry. But Georges said the group, which has funded several mailers, did not directly answer a question about its backers.
One mailer paid for by Jobs for Clawson depicts an elderly woman in a wheelchair even though the proposal pertains to recreational rather than medical businesses.
Georges isn’t sure why the group is zeroing in on his city of nearly 12,000 people.
“Why Clawson?” he said. “We're not exactly a mega city.”
In addition to Jobs for Clawson, which registered in 2020, two groups, Oakland Cares and the Oakland Cares Coalition, have submitted campaign finance reports this year in the county where Clawson is located. Both list Tebbutts as treasurer and they only report in-kind donations totaling $56,347 from the Coalition for Michigan Patients.
A separate measure on the Clawson ballot this year is more limited than the Jobs for Clawson proposals and would allow two recreational marijuana stores. It’s backed by a group called Clawson CARES, which lists Clawson resident Surab Deb as treasurer. Deb did not respond to a request for comment, but he appears to be relatively transparent about his group’s funding. Its listed donations for 2020 and 2021 include more than $18,300 in monetary contributions from a cannabis business called 3 Green, LLC and about $40 from Deb himself.
Same treasurer connected to group that failed to get on Mason ballot
The backers of proposals like those on the ballot in Clawson, Perry, Rockwood, and Potterville, haven’t been successful in every attempt to advance ballot measures this year.
In Mason, the Ingham Cares Coalition submitted signatures but were told a vote cannot happen until 2022 because such measures are only permitted during a regular election when city candidates are on the ballot, City Clerk Sarah Jarvis said.
Attorney Michael Woodyard submitted signatures on behalf of several of the Tebbutt-connected groups with marijuana proposals on the ballot this fall, local clerks said. Woodyard did not respond to a request for comment. He’s one of the attorneys who represented the Southeast Michigan Patients Advocates Coalition in its lawsuit against Rockwood and that committee listed services from Woodyard’s law firm as among its in-kind donations.
The Ingham Cares Coalition has a familiar treasurer —Tebbutt — and the $7,411 it disclosed in in-kind contributions come from a familiar place — the Coalition for Michigan Patients.
Why dark money groups are flourishing
Brendan Quinn works for the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for strict enforcement of campaign finance law. He says these types of untraceable donations make it harder for voters to make informed decisions.
“When they don't have that knowledge, they don't know who is spending to try to influence their vote," Quinn said. "It's kind of hard to trust that messaging.”
Massoglia says dark money organizations are flourishing in the wake of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision, which opened the door for more anonymous spending from corporations and nonprofits.
Some of those groups take steps to look like independent, grassroots initiatives despite being backed by the same operation, she said.
“We have seen dark money groups not only grow in terms of more money flowing into US political processes at the federal level, at the state level and even at the local level," Massoglia said. "But we've also seen their tactics become much more sophisticated."