Gov. Rick Snyder: “I don’t know” who gives to the shadowy NERD slush fund that pays political operatives

Plausible deniability or intentional obfuscation?


[Caricature by DonkeyHotey from photos by Anne C. Savage for Eclectablog]

Depositions were taken in an ongoing lawsuit this week that seeks to determine if the State of Michigan negotiated in good faith with unions before declaring bankruptcy in Detroit. Yesterday, Governor Snyder took his turn and some of the deposition is on tape. One particular line of questioning is of particular interest, I think.

While being questioned by an AFSCME attorney, Governor Snyder was asked probing questions about who funds his secretive slush fund, the New Energy to Reinvest and Diversify or NERD fund. The attorney wanted to know, for example, if Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s previous employer Jones Day paid into the fund. The governor’s attorney from the Attorney General’s office repeatedly said the questions were outside of the scope of the lawsuit and stopped him from answering. Finally, after a break, he agreed to answer.

His response? I don’t know.

With respect to your questions as to who the donors were and that category of questioning, my answer would be I don’t know. There’s an independent board that does that work.

The fact that Governor Snyder set up this fund in the first place but now has no idea who funds it strains credulity. If he truly doesn’t know, it suggests that he knew in advance that the group would be doing things he should have no knowledge of and intentionally shielded himself from it. He’d have “plausible deniability” as it’s called.

What the NERD fund is doing is very much on the ragged edge of what’s ethical and, perhaps, even legal. Governor Snyder’s “right hand man” Richard Baird has an office in the Governor’s office and is an employee of the state government in every way but one: the state government does not give him a paycheck, the NERD fund does. We also now know that Kevyn Orr’s expenses are paid in part by the NERD fund to the tune of $4,200 a month. So these two incredibly powerful men within our state government are paid by a group of shadowy financial contributors whose identities we’re not permitted to know because the governor won’t disclose them, despite repeated requests to do so and despite claiming earlier this year that he would consider doing so.

Governor Snyder has actually released the donors to another fund set up to refurbish the Governor’s mansion on Mackinac Island but, when it comes to paying the salaries of Richard Baird, Kevyn Orr, and who knows what else, that’s a secret. Who are Richard Baird and Kevyn Orr beholden to? Which groups who pay their bills have special access and, perhaps, pull with these two men? We aren’t allowed to know this because Governor Snyder won’t reveal them and now, incredibly, claims not to even know who they are.

Interestingly, Michael Beckel at The Center for Public Integrity has discovered that one of the contributors to the NERD slush fund is CVS Pharmacy. They have contributed $1,000, a tiny fraction of the nearly $2 million the fund has raised since it started in 2011. What does a grand buy you? We may never know.

Snyder’s utter lack of transparency on this issue has gotten national attention and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has listed him as one of the 18 “Worst Governors in the Country” (pdf).

Democratic candidate for governor Mark Schauer is demanding that Snyder reveal the donors so that we can know who has inside access to Orr and Baird:

Michigan taxpayers deserve to know which individuals and special interests are contributing to this secretive fund. More importantly, taxpayers deserve to know if Snyder’s top aide, Rich Baird, has lobbied government officials on behalf of the NERD Fund donors who pay his salary. It’s time for answers, not more excuses. If Gov. Snyder has nothing to hide, he should clear the air by disclosing all NERD Fund donors immediately.

Schauer has created at website, SecretiveSnyder.com, that has a countdown clock counting down the number of days since Snyder’s administration first said it would consider disclosing NERD Fund donors this summer.

The NERD fund is in direct contradiction to Rick Snyder’s 2010 campaign where he promised transparency in state government. Between this and the equally shadowy and secretive Skunk Works group who were working behind closed doors to privatize Michigan public schools by turning public education into a voucher system, we should all be asking what other things are happening that we haven’t yet discovered.

The answer to that, to quote the governor, is “I don’t know.”

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