The $20,000 question 

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick may lose more than $20,000 from his campaign war chest because it came from a political action committee that, having failed for more than a year to supply state-required documentation of its activities, is now under review by the secretary of state for operating illegally.

But it’s entirely possible that the Vision 05 PAC, fronted by a Detroit police commander who until recently oversaw the purchasing of the department’s motor vehicles, will continue its activities largely unfettered because Michigan campaign finance law is long on bark and short on bite.

Political action committees are formed by special-interest groups to raise money for favored political candidates. Both PACs and candidates are required to file financial campaign statements three times a year — in January, July and October. A PAC’s statement details the flow of money from donors to the PAC and from the PAC to candidates. The disclosure laws are aimed at creating an open campaign finance system, one in which it’s obvious who’s giving how much money to whom. When it works, it’s a great system. When it doesn’t, there’s not much the state can — or will — do about it.

Critics of the system say that laws aimed at compliance but weak on enforcement open the system to exploitation by people looking to break the rules.

“The law is ridiculously porous, ridiculously flimsy and people abuse it all the time,” says Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonprofit watchdog group. “There’s a major problem in that the campaign finance act is written to say that when the secretary of state finds what appears to be violations, she is obligated to pursue means of informal resolution.”

That’s certainly what happened with Vision 05.

Detroit Police Cmdr. Todd Bettison filed a statement of organization for Vision 05 in May 2004, listing himself as the PAC’s treasurer. Bettison, who is currently assigned to the city’s Super Bowl Planning Office, says the PAC was started by a “group of friends,” but refuses to identify them. His is the only name on that document.

The 2004 statement of organization was the last document Bettison filed until this month, when he submitted a year’s worth of delinquent reports on Sept. 1 — about two weeks after he learned that Metro Times was investigating his PAC’s status.

The PAC had been delinquent in filing statements since missing the October 2004 deadline, but the case wasn’t referred to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office until after Bettison missed the January 2005 deadline, says secretary of state spokeswoman Kelly Chesney. Vision 05 paid a $1,000 fine for the late January report, but still didn’t file the campaign finance reports, Chesney says. That’s the only time Bettison’s been fined in more than a year.

With two missed filing dates, the PAC continued to operate, taking in more than $17,000 in May 2005 alone, according to the statements filed late last week. That’s one problem Robinson points to: Stopping an illegally operating PAC isn’t the object of the state’s law.

Chesney confirms this.

“How do we bring him into compliance is the question,” Chesney says of Vision 05. “The penalties serve as a prompt to disclose. This gentleman could be subject to additional fines because he failed to file.”

But fines that top out at $1,000 aren’t much of a deterrent, Robinson says, adding, “Some consider it the cost of doing business.”

Bettison told Metro Times last month that he’d been working on his January filing, and that he wasn’t aware he was required to file a July statement. That’s a claim Chesney says is hard to believe.

“I don’t know why they didn’t understand their responsibility, because they were given a packet that outlines their responsibilities,” she says. “That is provided to each and every organization, by Michigan campaign finance law.”

Chesney says the secretary of state also sends out reminder bulletins before each of the filing deadlines. Bettison says he hadn’t been getting mail from the secretary of state, and that he didn’t understand how to use the state’s electronic filing system. That, he says, was the cause of the 13-month filing delay.

At Metro Times’ deadline, Chesney said the secretary of state was in the process of reviewing the statements to determine if Vision 05 qualifies to donate as an independent PAC.

To qualify for independent status, a PAC must have 25 members and support at least three different candidates, Chesney says. An independent PAC can donate up to $34,000 to an individual candidate, while a political PAC can donate only $3,400.

Bettison says Vision 05 had made contributions to Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans and Detroit City Council candidates Roy McCallister and Jai-Lee Dearing, but neither Dearing’s nor McCallister’s statements reflect such a contribution — and neither do Bettison’s. Evans, who ran for re-election in 2004, claimed a $500 personal donation from Bettison; Vision 05’s reports only show donations to Evans and Kilpatrick.

Given those circumstances, it appears unlikely that Vision 05 will qualify for independent status.

That means Kilpatrick would have to return any amount over $3,400 of the $24,500 donated to his campaign by Bettison’s PAC. (At deadline, representatives from the Kilpatrick campaign hadn’t returned phone calls from Metro Times.) If that’s the case, Chesney says, the secretary of state will contact the PAC and instruct them to take appropriate action.

If Vision 05 had never filed statements, Chesney says, it would have been impossible to determine if it qualified as an independent. In the absence of that determination, no action would have been taken.

And that’s another soft spot in the law, Robinson says. “As soon as an overage is realized, the candidate and the PAC should be contacted.

“As it is, the secretary of state might send out notices months from now — or might not ever catch them.”

Nancy Kaffer is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-806 or nkaffer@metrotimes.com

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