Out of the frying pan and into the fire
On June 18th, Sterling Corporation employee and Jeff Timmer resigned from the Board of State Canvassers, leaving only one Republican on the elections board and a Democratic majority. While some feared that the remaining Republican, Norm Shinkle, would resign as well, leaving the group without a quorum and unable to approve a number of ballot initiatives pending for the November election, Governor Rick Snyder acted quickly and last week appointed Colleen Pero to the Board.
Described in glowing terms on the official announcement, Pero sounds like an innocuous and innocent choice. The truth is, however, quite the opposite. Colleen Pero has deep connections to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society and a host of other far-right, pro-business lobby groups.
Here’s how the official announcement describes her:
Pero is vice president of Pero Consulting Inc., a public affairs consulting firm based in Laingsburg. Previously, she served as former Gov. John Engler’s special counsel and director of state affairs, as co-director of the Michigan Political Leadership Program at Michigan State University and as a senior analyst with Gulf Oil Corp. Pero serves as co-chair of the Michigan Council on Citizen Diplomacy and is a board member for the State Bar board of commissioners, Michigan Political Leadership Program and Montessori Children’s House.
What’s missing from this description is the fact that Pero, along with her husband Dan, work for the ironically-named American Justice Partnership (AJP). Formed in 2005 by Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, Steve Hantler formerly an attorney for DaimlerChrysler, and former Michigan Governor John Engler,
now former president of the pro-business, anti-government regulation group National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). AJP, in fact, originated with NAM, formed to combat attempts to move away from judicial elections, promote “tort reform” by limiting plaintiff’s ability to be compensated by negligent corporations, and to promote what they call “pro-reform” — in other words, very conservative — judges around the country. Since then, they have separated from NAM and claim they are “not working with NAM on any projects” or “coordinating with NAM in any way”.
When I say that Pero works for AJP, what I’m talking about is that she has contributed major “reports” that are featured prominently on their website. Her most notable one is a piece titled “Justice Hijacked” (pdf) which claims, breathlessly and with high drama, to pull the curtains back on the Soros funding of liberal causes, not a particularly big bombshell to anyone paying attention. She also was the author of “The ‘Activist’ Journey of The Florida Supreme Court” (pdf) in which she evaluates various Florida Supreme Court decisions using criteria she developed to identify “activist” judges/rulings. If a ruling meets any one of five specific criteria (that she invented), they are considered “activist”.
So, who and what, exactly, is the American Justice Partnership? They are affiliated with many state Chambers of Commerce, of course, the bastions of pro-business lobbying. But have a look at their national partners list:
American Enterprise Institute. American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). American Tort Reform Association. The Manhattan Institute. The Federalist Society. The Heritage Foundation (where Pero has provided content and participated in events). Overlawyered.com. It’s a veritable Who’s Who of right wing, pro-business, anti-regulation groups that have the common mission of making it as cheap to run a business as possible. The want to make it as hard as possible for citizens to sue companies and collect compensation based on negligence.
To be sure, AJP is working very hard to reform our nation’s tort laws and to get what they refer to as “pro-reform” judges elected across the country. According to a piece in The National Prospect, they are spending millions of dollars, in fact.
In 2004, the [U.S. Chamber of Commerce] was on the winning side in 12 of the 13 state supreme court races in which it was involved, according to Roll Call, including four in Ohio. In 2005, the National Association of Manufacturers followed the Chamber’s lead, creating an offshoot, the American Justice Partnership (AJP), to target state courts. Voluminous cash outlays from AJP have included $345,000 to Americans Tired of Lawsuit Abuse to help back two Republican candidates for Washington state Supreme Court seats in 2006 and $1.3 million the same year to the Georgia Safety and Prosperity Coalition, which spent heavily on ads attacking Georgia Chief Justice Carol Hunstein and then melted away just a little more than a year after its appearance.
AJP are even listed as “experts” on asbestos litigation. For the defendants, of course.
But, more importantly than these efforts, and they are considerable, the connections to the Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation and ALEC raise the specter of even more anti-democratic interests. As it turns out, AJP funnels money to a number of groups that have nothing to do with judicial selection or tort reform. The trail is often hard to follow because, in what amounts to a very clever money laundering operation, they can make “grants” and other contributions to 501(c)(4) groups who do not have to reveal their contributors.
For all the talk about super PACs this election season — their influence in keeping some candidates afloat, their ability to accept unlimited contributions from almost any source, the handful of millionaires and billionaires who are their primary funders — they are not at the top of transparency advocates’ list of horrors. That’s because super PACs have to disclose their donors to the public.
But 501(c)(4) groups can keep their donors hidden from public view, leaving voters in the dark about who is behind them and the millions they spend on advertisements promoting or attacking candidates. While they are supposed to function as social welfare groups, they can get involved in politics as long as they limit their political activity to less than half of their operations. But “social welfare” is loosely defined, and the groups have thus far escaped much scrutiny by the IRS.
One such group is a GOP “non-profit” called the American Futures Fund.
Several nonprofit organizations that don’t disclose their donors but have been deeply involved in partisan politics during the last several years have received multimillion-dollar contributions from groups that are familiar players in Republican circles.
The GOP nonprofits — American Action Network, which spent $26 million on ads in the 2010 mid-term elections; Crossroads GPS, which spent $16 million; and the American Future Fund, which laid out $9.6 million — are all organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. They and the individuals who run them have strong ties to some of the same political networks, research by OpenSecrets Blog shows.
In 2010, AJP donated $2.4 million to American Futures Fund. But, because AJP doesn’t reveal its specific donors, American Futures Fund is funded mostly by unknown groups.
It doesn’t stop there. In 2010, a group called Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government (CCAG) worked hard to defeat Democratic candidates in the Rocky Mountain State. AJP was there to help.
CCAG seems to be the big daddy of GOP committees in Colorado, and is the recipient of large donations not just from individuals but also from other committees. In 2010, it spent about $1.7 million in Colorado–some of that money going to producing and placing negative ads attacking Democrats.
In October and November of 2010, CCAG received a total of $350,000 from American Justice Partnership. Also in October 2010, it received $300,000 from Colorado Leadership Fund and $145,000 from Senate Majority Fund. It received smaller donations that month from Greg Stevinson and Encana Oil and Gas.
In December 2011, Mainers went to the polls and rebuked the Republicans and their governor by passing a referendum that restored same-day voter registration, keeping it as easy as possible to vote in Maine. Easy voting is an anathema to the right and AJP was on hand to help thwart this effort. Again, they lost.
[T]wo days after the state’s campaign finance reporting deadline, a secret conservative donor funneled $250,000 into the race, allowing the No On 1 campaign to make significant TV ad buys in an inexpensive media market.
Per state law, however, the identity of donors must be revealed within 45 days after the election. In fact, the entire $250,000 worth of late money came from a single source: the American Justice Partnership.
The AJP is a conservative legal organization based not in Maine, but in Michigan. On their website, the group states they are fighting against “the scheming George Soros money machine” which is “trying to sabotage your right to vote,” a claim apparently made without a hint of irony. Though the AJP doesn’t disclose where its funding comes from, the Bangor Daily News notes that it has partnered with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the past, a group that has been instrumental in the proliferation of voter ID laws across the country.
The AJP’s secret $250,000 contribution ultimately accounted for over 78 percent of all the money raised by the No On 1 campaign. In other words, over three-quarters of the funding for opponents of election day registration in Maine came from Michigan. (This money was then used to run ads decrying “outsiders from other states” who were influencing the Maine election.)
Following their defeat in Maine, the website Republic Report ran an exclusive report showing that, not only had AJP filed its paperwork late, for two years in a row, they had listed a corporation as a member of their Board of Directors.
Today, we’re reporting on another mysterious front, the American Justice Partnership (AJP). This group is tied to efforts to suppress voting in Maine, to limit the ability of citizens throughout the South to sue insurance companies and other big businesses, and to run hysterical anti-Muslim ads to help defeat Democrats in 2010. The group, however, has fiercely guarded the names of its donors. AJP even broke a Maine law for refusing to disclose its donors 45 days after an election in which AJP provided 100% of the money used to attempt to repeal a law allowing same-day voter registration. How far has the group gone to skirt campaign finance laws and avoid detection by the public and press?
According to its own public filing, one of the board members of American Justice Partnership is literally a corporation.
Indeed, if you go to their report, they have a screen cap of AJP’s Form 990 filings from 2009 and 2010 showing “Pero Consulting, Inc.” as a board member.
Republic Report also reported that portions of the money that went to try to disenfranchise Mainers came from a pro-business group out of Wisconsin, all orchestrated by AJP out of Michigan.
Tax forms from the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Issues Mobilization Council Inc. show that the group, which is run by corporations like the Boldt Company and Wausau Paper, provided at least $865,000 to [American Justice Partnership]:
The disclosure shows that the Wisconsin business group gave American Justice Partnership the money to support “shared mission of educating the public about business issues.” But this vague description is applied to every grant. For more clarity, we asked Jim Pugh, a communications executive with the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce group. “Our 990 form speaks for itself,” he wrote back. “Thanks for your interest.”
This is just one glimpse at who funds AJP, a rare one due to their ability to hide their donors and where they make their contributions due to their 501(c)(4) status.
As a final example, AJP has also gotten involved in nationwide redistricting by Republicans through contributions to the Republican State Leadership Committee:
Republicans prepared for the 2010 election with an eye toward replicating and expanding [the Southern Strategy]. The Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) unveiled the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) in 2010 to target Statehouse races and put Republicans in charge of redistricting efforts following the election. Ed Gillespie, former chair of the Republican National Committee, became the group’s chair, while Chris Jankowski, a corporate lobbyist in Virginia, handled day-to-day operations. The group, which as a tax-exempt 527 could accept unlimited corporate donations, became the self-described “lead Republican Redistricting organization,” taking over many of the functions of the RNC. The RSLC attracted six- and seven-figure donations from the likes of the US Chamber of Commerce, tobacco companies Altria and Reynolds American, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the Karl Rove–founded American Crossroads and the American Justice Partnership, a conservative legal group that has been a partner of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a state-based conservative advocacy group. Funding from these corporate interests allowed the RSLC to spend $30 million on state races in 2010, including $1.2 million in North Carolina.
If you go to the AJP webpage, you won’t find much about who runs the group. In fact, Dan Pero is the only one listed despite the fact that his wife Colleen provides significant content. A look at their most recent Form 990 (pdf) shows they have, as board members, these other far-right luminaries:
- Cleta Mitchell – Mitchell is a tea party attorney deeply involved in preventing the legalization of same sex marriage around the U.S.
- Richard McLellan – McLelllan is an attorney that is not only a director of AJP, he’s also on the Managing Committee of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
- Clifford Taylor – Taylor is a former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and a — wait for it — member of the Board of Directors of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
The connections with the Mackinac Center bring us back to the Peros. How? One of the Mackinac Center’s founders was former Michigan Governor John Engler, also a co-founder of AJP and the
current former head of NAM. Dan Pero is a close friend of Engler and was once his chief-of-staff. Colleen Pero was also close to John Engler, serving as his special counsel and director of state affairs while he was in office. She was a good friend of Michelle De Munbrun, the woman who later became Michelle Engler. It was Pero, in fact, that introduced the two. Dan Pero was Engler’s best man when they married.
The Mackinac Center. ALEC. The Heritage Foundation. The Federalist Society. Countless other right-wing, pro-business groups wrapped in a tangled and incestuous web where money flows freely but often without any followable trail. Meanwhile, AJP decries left-leaning groups for their lack of transparency. Colleen Pero’s disdain for Soros and his funding of progressive groups is, apparently, not held equally for the billionaire Koch brothers who fund conservative candidates and causes across the country. The hypocrisy is rampant.
While Jeff Timmer’s connection to the group trying to prevent the repeal of Michigan’s Emergency Manager law — Public Act 4 — was deplorable, replacing him with Colleen Pero, a woman connected to multiple anti-democratic, pro-business conservative groups is a step in the wrong direction. Having a person like her making decisions on what initiatives and candidates get on the ballot is an order of magnitude worse than the fox guarding the hen house. This fox is part of a network that built the hen house.
Our elections in Michigan are at serious risk. From redistricting to new rules making it harder to vote and disenfranchising laws like PA 4, we are quickly seeing the democratic process perverted and corrupted by the right to suit their own corporatist goals.
And Colleen Pero is now sitting on the panel that, more than any other, determines what and who we get to vote for.
UPDATE: I can’t believe that I missed the fact that Dan Pero was a cofounder of Sterling Corporation, the company that now-resigned Jeff Timmer works for. They certainly are an incestuous group of corporatists, are they not??? Hat tip to Laura Conaway at The Maddow Blog for that catch.
[Pero photo from AJP publication]