The last four years have been brutal for the rule of law in Michigan.
The Democratic governor, secretary of state and attorney general have routinely used the levers of power to target their political opponents while giving one another a free pass. It’s not just naked partisanship — it’s a pattern of inappropriate, unethical and sometimes unconstitutional abuses of power.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ignored state law and the state constitution to seize near-total control of residents’ lives, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson barely punished unethical fundraising schemes by the governor — while targeting Republicans accused of lesser offenses — and Attorney General Dana Nessel repeatedly engaged in political prosecutions targeting Republicans while ignoring wrongdoing by her own political allies.
When Whitmer issued sweeping and unscientific lockdown orders, usurping the role of the Legislature, only action from the state Supreme Court finally put an end to them. That hasn’t stopped the governor from using the power of her bureaucracy to persecute residents, businesses and local governments who stood up to her.
When Whitmer’s lackeys fined the city of Port Huron $6,300 over a “general feeling” about their compliance to her COVID orders, the city fought back and threatened to depose high-ranking Whitmer officials. Worried about public exposure, the Whitmer administration withdrew the fine.
Attorney General Dana Nessel waged a legal war against the businesses and individuals that stood up to her friend. She engaged in political prosecutions of a restaurant owner and a barber who hadn’t followed the letter of Whitmer’s unconstitutional orders.
Nessel continues her political prosecution of former Gov. Rick Snyder and other officials over their handling of the Flint water crisis, but dropped the racketeering investigation into state officials and dismantled the original team of prosecutors.
She refuses to lift a finger to investigate Whitmer over her handling of the ongoing Benton Harbor lead water crisis.
Nessel’s refusal to use a taint team cost taxpayers time and money, and her use of a one-man grand jury to pursue her political vendettas has drawn scathing criticism from criminal justice reformers and good government advocates. A case challenging its constitutionality is currently before the Michigan Supreme Court.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is no less inclined to use her office to target her opponents and protect her friends.
In 2018, then-candidate Gretchen Whitmer appeared in coordinated campaign ads with Build a Better Michigan, a nonprofit group that took on the role of promoting Whitmer’s candidacy, a dramatic violation of the state’s campaign finance laws. The Bureau of Elections investigated and found the nonprofit inappropriately spent millions of dollars it put toward TV advertisements and failed to disclose the spending.
A similar violation in 2016 committed by a Republican-allied group in support of a Republican candidate resulted in penalties administered by the secretary of state that matched the amount illegally spent. Such a penalty for Build a Better Michigan would have neared $2 million.
Benson levied a civil fine of only $37,500 and refused to release records about the decision that could make her office — and her friend Gretchen Whitmer — look bad.
We sued Jocelyn Benson and won in the Court of Claims, which demanded Benson provide those records (and to pay the legal fees of transparency advocates who’ve been fighting to expose them). Benson has refused. The Court of Appeals is set to hear the case next month.
It’s against that backdrop that Benson decided last week to refer significantly less serious campaign finance complaints against two conservative organizations committed to protecting freedom to her friend Nessel for criminal prosecution.
That’s not just hypocrisy. It’s an abuse of power, and it has to stop.
Tori Sachs is executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund.