By KYLE DAVIDSON AND JOSH VALIQUETTE
Capital News Service
LANSING — Leading up to the 2020 election, candidates for sheriff in Michigan’s 10 most populated counties received over $69,000 in in-kind campaign contributions – items as diverse as sporting tickets, cigars, a crossbow and a vacuum cleaner.
In-kind contributions are goods or services provided to a campaign committee at no cost or at a discount. Each contribution is assigned a fair-market value.
The first $1,000 worth of food and beverages voluntarily donated by an individual does not count as a contribution. Then they are limited based on county population. Candidates in counties with more than 250,000 people have an individual contribution limit of $7,150. Those with a population between 250,000 and 85,000 are limited to $2,100. And those with less than 85,000 people are capped at $1,050.
Michigan State University journalism students analyzed campaign finance records covering the sheriff’s race in the 10 largest counties between Jan. 1, 2018, and the Sept. 23, 2020, post- primary filing deadline.
Macomb County Sheriff received the most in-kind contributions with more than $19,000. The average among the 13 candidates who raised or spent enough that they had to file reports was $5,326.
Donations of food and beverages for fundraisers and services such as printing and advertising for the campaign were commonly listed as contributions. Others were less typical, like security systems, TVs and tickets to sporting events.
Running for sheriff can be expensive, depending on the race.
“My first election cycle I raised and spent about $37,000,” said Matthew Saxton, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association. Most of the costs were for advertising.
Saxton said sheriffs often host yearly fundraisers to avoid raising all their campaign funds within the election year. These fundraisers include golf outings, silent auctions and hog roasts.
“Using an auction to sell items that were donated to them like watches or sports tickets is a common practice to raise money for a campaign,” said Wayne County Clerk Cathy M. Garrett.
Examples within Michigan counties are easy to find.
Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth received in-kind contributions of televisions, sports tickets, a crossbow and a wooden watch for use in fundraisers, according to campaign finance reports filed by his election committee.
Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham received $500 worth of cigars, $480 in gift cards for numerous businesses and four Red Wings tickets worth a total of $1,200. Gift cards are counted as in-kind contributions, so they are able to exceed the legal gift limit of $25.
Kent County sheriff candidate Michelle Lajoye-Young received a security system and a vacuum cleaner as fundraiser contributions.
Candidates taking this approach to fundraising still have rules to follow.
“These might be incidental costs, small costs, but really you have to report anything with an ascertainable value. Even if someone is just giving your campaign $20 worth of cigars, you have to report that,” said Cody Mott, an associate attorney at Foster Swift Collins & Smith PC and a member of the firm’s Election and Campaign Finance Law Group.
Mott said that if a candidate marks an item as an item for a fundraiser on their finance reports, that is how the item will be classified and represented. He said while items are not typically donated with the restriction that they be used at a fundraiser, misrepresenting these items could result in a violation.
There is a fine line between a fundraiser item and a gift, said Simon Schuster, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
“People running for elected office cannot receive a gift that’s more than $25,” Schuster said. “I think that trying to understand where that line is drawn is important.”
According to Mott, the distinction lies in whether or not the items are for personal use.
“If it’s a personal use item then there’s other problems,” Mott said. “The problem is not in the in-kind contribution, it’s (that) you’re siphoning funds from a campaign committee for personal use.”
“Unfortunately, we do see these kinds of contributions appearing all too often,” Schuster said.
Mott said enforcing the laws against personal use is fairly difficult. He said political opponents act as the No. 1 enforcement, and file complaints regularly.
In Michigan, county clerks review the campaign finance records to ensure candidates adhere to the Michigan Campaign Finance Act. Most county clerks do not review campaign records, Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said.
“They don’t have the resources or the experience, or quite frankly the time,” Byrum said.
Byrum said Michigan’s campaign finance disclosures function primarily on an honor system. Even when problematic reports are taken to state authorities, Byrum said this often only results in a $100 fine after a long period of investigation.
“It seems like the state has outsourced its enforcement to the parties and to the campaigns,” Mott said.
This story is part of a series that looked at finance reports filed for Michigan county treasurer, drain commissioner and sheriff campaigns. Michigan State University students from four classes examined reports filed between Jan. 1 2018 and the post primary filing deadline of Sept. 23, 2020.
Stories in this series: