Saturday, July 23, 2022

Deceptive Campaign Payments Uncovered


Hidden Payments

Two local political candidates - Anne Bannister for Mayor of Ann Arbor and Stephen Ranzini for Washtenaw County Commissioner, District 2 - have together spent more than $17,000 on consulting services from one anonymous entity with no address and no paper trail, bearing the name "Household Words." This morning, community members, collaborating on the twitter hashtag #a2council, discovered that the likely recipient of these thousands of dollars in campaign funds is Patricia Lesko, who runs the Ann Arbor Independent.

The Ann Arbor Independent bills itself as "an award-winning digital newspaper committed to excellence in community journalism," and no disclosures of these direct payments by the campaigns were found on the site at the time of this article's publication.

A Trail of Half-Disclosures

In this year's disclosures, Ranzini and Bannister both list Household Words under campaign expenditures, to the tune of $15,500 and $2,125 respectively. However, unlike every other disclosure, neither campaign lists a full address for this entity, just a city and zip code. The two candidates list "campaign consulting" and "postcard design services" as the services rendered. The trail from here appears to run cold, as Household Words is not registered as a corporate entity with Michigan Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA).

One of multiple payments from Stephen Ranzini's campaign to Household Words,
totaling more than  $15,000

Anne Bannister's disclosure, paying Household Words $2,125

This doesn't appear to satisfy the reporting requirements for campaign finance laws in Michigan, which states candidates must disclose "the full name and street address of each person to whom expenditures or other disbursements totaling more than $50.00 were made." Note, in this context "person" can mean a business, individual, proprietorship, LLC, firm, etc. Given this substandard finance reporting, we appear to be at a dead end, with no further clues for who is behind "Household Words," a lucrative local entity receiving thousands of dollars in campaign funds.

However, in 2018, Jack Eaton ran for Mayor of Ann Arbor, and his campaign also paid "Household Words" $100 for design services. Unlike the current candidates, Eaton previously disclosed a PO box, 130117, for this entity.

Jack Eaton's 2018 Mayoral campaign, showing the P.O. Box of Household Words

A quick search for this PO box reveals it is shared with Adjunct Nation and the Ann Arbor Independent, both of which are online properties of PD Lesko, or Patricia Lesko, a self-described local "independent journalist."

Ann Arbor Independent: PO Box 130117, shared with Household Words

When details of the "Household Words" expense came to light, Vivienne Armentrout, who served as Jack Eaton's campaign treasurer in 2018, had the following to say on Twitter, confirming the expenditures were indeed to a consulting firm owned by "local journalist" Patricia Lesko.

Mixing Journalism and Campaign Consulting?

Through the Ann Arbor Independent, Lesko has published many election 2022 pieces, some of which target Bannister's opponent, incumbent mayor Christopher Taylor. She has also written more positive articles about Anne Bannister, whose campaign appears to have paid Lesko through the shadow entity "Household Words." No recent articles have been published regarding Stephen Ranzini, though one recent article portrayed his opponent, Crystal Lyte, as one of Taylor's "carpet runners." 

These journalistic pieces come during the same election in which Household Words was paid for campaign consulting and design work. Further, these payments were carefully and methodically hidden from public scrutiny, with the 2022 disclosures providing no info other than city and zip code for "Household Words," the only such disclosure with this attempted level of anonymity. 

This piece promoting Anne Bannister appeared on the Ann Arbor Independent
one month after Bannister paid Household Words $2,125.

Journalists and newspapers have a long history of selling ad space to local candidates, but direct payments for services and consulting have been taboo, and for good reason. Payments like these, which can appear to be from a political candidate to a journalist, certainly calls any claims of "independence" into question. The Society of Professional Journalists has this advice about mixing journalism and politics: "The simplest answer is 'No.' Don't do it. Don't get involved. Don't contribute money, don't work in a campaign, don't lobby." And when that cannot be avoided, the journalist should first and foremost err on the side of disclosure. Again, no such disclosures could be found on the Ann Arbor Independent website at time of publication. 

We reached out to both Bannister and Ranzini campaigns for comment, but neither had responded at press time. This article will be updated if/when we hear from them. 

Disclosure: Neither Damn Arbor, nor any entities associated with Damn Arbor, have been paid by any candidates seeking political office in Washtenaw County in 2022.

No comments:

Post a Comment