Politics

‘Pure fiction:’ Duggan denies involvement with dark money group meddling in council races

October 11, 2021, 2:21 PM by  Violet Ikonomova

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Our Neighborhoods First pushes Ayers in a citywide billboard campaign. (Photo: Violet Ikonom

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan sought to discredit a weekend Deadline Detroit report that described connections between him and two dark money groups pushing a number of candidates in this year’s pivotal city council races.

The groups run by his current and former appointees — Our Neighborhoods First and Detroit Leaders — are backing four candidates in the more hotly contested races, likely with money from outsiders with business interests in the city, experts say.

Our Neighborhoods First, run by Duggan’s appointment to the Public Lighting Authority and his past appointments to the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners and Board of Ethics, is pushing Janeé Ayers for re-election to her at-large seat and Fred Durhal III for District 7. Ayers’ home and office were raided by the FBI in August as part of an ongoing corruption probe into city council.

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Detroit Leaders, which is run by Duggan’s former ethics board appointee and also has ties to his ally, Councilmember Scott Benson, is pushing Latisha Johnson in District 4 and Hector Santiago in District 6.

Both groups also share a lawyer with the Duggan campaign, Dykema’s W. Alan Wilk.

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Candidates backed by Our Neighborhoods First and Detroit Leaders.

Calling the report “pure fiction,” Duggan said at a Monday news conference that he “had no connection” with Detroit Leaders. He even went so far as to endorse Santiago’s opponent in District 6.

“Normally I do not comment on any elections in a year that I’m running,” he said. “But because of the damage done by this irresponsible story I will make my position clear on this: If I were a voter in District 6 I would be voting for Gabriela Santiago-Romero.”

He was mum on his position on the other candidates.

Before our original report, Duggan spokesman John Roach sidestepped questions about whether the mayor was involved with Our Neighborhoods First or Detroit Leaders, saying that the mayor follows all campaign finance laws and that "Various ballot committees, (Political Action Committees and 501C4 dark money nonprofits) ... sometimes support the candidates or issues the mayor supports, and sometimes they support different candidates or issues."

When asked Monday by the Free Press about his connections to Our Neighborhoods First — the more prominent group, which is also boosting the mayor with billboards and an ad attacking his opponent — Duggan claimed not to know who was running it, despite having read the Deadline Detroit report naming its leaders.

“I’d have to see what the names are,” he said. “There’s 25 (c4s, PACs and Super PACs) in this town, some of them are supporting issues I support, some are supporting ones I don’t. I don’t know which one Our Neighbors is, but if someone comes up to me and asks me, ‘Is this a good idea or a bad idea?,’ I tell them what my position is.”

In 2020, Our Neighborhoods First pushed Prop N, Duggan’s $250-million blight bond initiative, in coordination with members of his administration, Roach said at the time.

Duggan goes back with two of the group's leaders. Lorna Thomas, his appointment to the lighting authority, served on the Detroit Medical Center board when he ran the hospital system and helped advise him during his first mayoral campaign. Brooks, meanwhile, is a "dear friend" of "probably 30 years," he’s said. Also leading the group is Keenann Knox, Duggan’s past appointment to the Board of Ethics who is also president of Detroit Leaders.

Duggan overlooked these tight bonds on Monday, however, saying “I got 72 percent of the vote in the primary … pretty much everybody in the city is affiliated with me. If you want to say my supporters are here or there you’re gonna find people who support me everywhere.”

Deadline Detroit did not report that the mayor was expressly advocating for the candidates, but spoke to experts who said the campaigns, with their ties to him, signal two things about the candidates they push: That big donors are comfortable with them and Duggan likely is too.

“Hopefully they’re telling Duggan what they’re doing off the record in some way because I would guarantee you they don’t want to make enemies of Mike Duggan,” said pollster and political consultant Ed Sarpolus, of Target-Insyght.

The latter group, Detroit Leaders, was connected to Benson and his chief of staff when it operated under a different name in a previous campaign. In 2016, as Save Detroit Jobs, the group fought a grassroots community benefits ordinance that would have required significant concessions from developers receiving city incentives.

Benson and his chief of staff, Carol Banks, have declined to answer questions about whether they remain involved. In District 4, the group is opposing longtime Benson foe, ML Elrick, a former Fox 2 government watchdog reporter who routinely went after the councilmember and Banks.

The August FBI search on council offices at city hall included the seizure of documents related to towing and 501c4 social welfare nonprofits — dark money groups like those at work this election cycle.

"Two of Detroit’s constant abuses are towing and social welfare organizations," Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross Business School, told The Detroit News for a recent story on the probe. "Those seem to be the perennial avenues for corruption in Detroit."

Duggan has said that corruption in towing “needs to be rooted out” and is pushing new rules he says will bring more accountability to the city’s selection of companies. He declined to say why he has a different position on sketchy political spending.

"This is the way of the world," he said of dark money groups on Monday.

Banks, was paid more than $18,000 by Save Detroit Jobs, much of it in unspecified reimbursements, according to campaign finance records filed before the group received retroactive nonprofit status from the IRS.

Its donors included Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan; Turn Around Wayne County PAC, whose donors include a number of corporations 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.

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