District apologizes for robocall that may violate state campaign finance act
A public school district in Michigan has used its phone alert system to point voters toward the recall effort against Gov. Rick Snyder. In early June, shortly after the Snyder recall reached the petition-gathering phase, the alert system for Lawrence Public Schools sent out the following robocall to residents of the district:
“This is a message from the Lawrence Public Schools (inaudible) alert system. This is an informational item and not directly associated with the school. Concerned parents interested in cuts to education . . . we're here to inform you that there is information about the problem. Also, be advised that there is a petition to recall Governor Snyder. If you want, stop by Chuck Moden's house right by the school June 7th/8th between 3:30 and 4:00 pm. Thank you. Goodbye.”
To listen, click here.
The school alert system is used for special announcements, such as school closings due to snowfall, lock-downs or other school-related information. In such situations, the robocalls go out to “alert” residents of the district about a special circumstance that is taking place. Though it is uncertain without an official investigation, use of the system to advance a political endeavor, such as the Snyder recall, appears to have been a violation of the state’s campaign finance law.
“It will never happen again” Lawrence Public Schools Superintendent John Overley told Capitol Confidential today, referring to the alert that went out about the Snyder recall. “It will not be done again, ever.”
Capitol Confidential asked Overley if the use of the alert in connection with the recall had been a mistake.
“Yes, a big mistake,” Overley responded.
Capitol Confidential asked Overley if the situation involving the alert had been brought before the district's school board.
“No, we haven't done that, but the school board members know about it,” Overley said. “My understanding was that this was to be more informational than it turned out.”
Capitol Confidential asked Overley if that meant he had known ahead of time that something concerning the recall was going to be sent out.
“We're not going to ever let this happen again,” Overley asserted.
Robert LaBrant is senior vice president of political affairs and general counsel for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. He is a veteran of many battles involving public schools misusing, or allegedly misusing, taxpayer resources for political purposes. Capitol Confidential asked him about situations such as the one involving the use of the Lawrence alert system.
“If this actually is the school district putting out the information in the manner described, it sounds like it would be a violation of Section 57 of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act,” Labrant said. “They can't use it (the school information system) in that way.”
Capitol Confidential asked Labrant what, if any, penalty would result from the district helping to direct voters to where they could get more information about the Snyder recall.
“If a complaint were to be filed with the Secretary of State, and it was determined that there had been a violation, I'd say there would at least be some kind of minor civil penalty,” Labrant said.
Fred Williams, spokesman for Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, said he wouldn't speculate as to whether any specific action would be considered a violation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act or not.
“If someone filed a complaint, we would look into it,” Woodhams said.
Individuals found guilty of violating Section 57 could face a fine of up to $20,000. However, one might reasonably ask to what extent the current law, and how it's implemented, actually serves as a deterrent.
Those attempting to recall Snyder have the daunting task of trying to collect 806,522 valid signatures in just a few months. Logic dictates that fertile ground for at least starting to harvest the signatures would be in state's K-12 community. With that in mind, the core question might be whether the possibility of getting caught and fined is likely to outweigh the opportunity of bringing in a lot of signatures.
“It sounds to me like this is a problem that needs some stronger penalties,” said Rep Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, Chair of the Michigan House Oversight, Reform and Ethics Committee. “Clearly just giving them a slap on the hand is not working to stop it.”
McMillin told Capitol Confidential that news of the Lawrence Public School incident would likely affect legislation that's currently before his committee.
“There is legislation that's about ready to move in my committee that could pertain to this kind of situation,” McMillin said. “It's the Pscholka bill and we'll be taking it up soon.”
McMillin was referring to HB 4052, sponsored by Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, which would: “. . . prohibit a public employee or collective bargaining organization from using publicly owned property, facilities, or services, including an electronic mail system, for (1) political activities, (2) political fund-raising, (3) campaigning for office of a collective bargaining organization, (4) collective bargaining organizing activities, or (5) solicitation of employees for membership in a collective bargaining organization.”
Capitol Confidential asked McMillin if he believed HB 4052 would address situations such as the Lawrence incident.
“I'd say, after hearing about this (the Lawrence) situation, we'll make sure the bill does address it before it comes out of committee,” McMillin responded.
Pscholka was the first lawmaker to be targeted for recall this year. Technically the issue he's facing recall over is the emergency manager legislation. He told Capitol Confidential that he has loads of examples of school employees misusing school email accounts and using school time for political purposes.
“I had a high school teacher call my office on the day of the School Aid budget vote,” Pscholka said. “First, I explained to her that what we were voting on wasn't what she had been told it was. Then I asked her why she was calling in the middle of the day and what about her class? She told me her class was taking a test and she'd just received an email from the MEA (Michigan Education Association) telling her to contact me. She also said she hadn't expected to get ahold of me.”
“So there she is calling me, instead of being in the room while her class was taking a test,” Pscholka added.
Pscholka also said his office has been collecting emails from school accounts pertaining to political matters.
“We have a stack of these emails,” Pscholka said. “We've been saving them. They came from school email accounts at the taxpayers' expense, not personal accounts. Most of them are from teachers. Some are actual emails, others are forwarded emails. They were written about a myriad of issues.”
Capitol Confidential asked Labrant if the Snyder recall effort could potentially be penalized as a result of such an action by a local school district.
“No, it would have no effect on them,” Labrant said. “If the MEA (Michigan Education Association) was paying for it, that would make it an in-kind contribution to the recall effort. But that would be the only effect.”
Charles “Chuck” Moden could not be reached for comment on this article.
Section 57 of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act states the following:
(1) A public body or an individual acting for a public body shall not use or authorize the use of funds, personnel, office space, computer hardware or software, property, stationery, postage, vehicles, equipment, supplies, or other public resources to make a contribution or expenditure or provide volunteer personal services that are excluded from the definition of contribution under section 4(3)(a). This subsection does not apply to any of the following:
(a) The expression of views by an elected or appointed public official who has policy making responsibilities.
(b) The production or dissemination of factual information concerning issues relevant to the function of the public body.
(c) The production or dissemination of debates, interviews, commentary, or information by a broadcasting station, newspaper, magazine, or other periodical or publication in the regular course of broadcasting or publication.
(d) The use of a public facility owned or leased by, or on behalf of, a public body if any candidate or committee has an equal opportunity to use the public facility.
(e) The use of a public facility owned or leased by, or on behalf of, a public body if that facility is primarily used as a family dwelling and is not used to conduct a fund-raising event.
(f) An elected or appointed public official or an employee of a public body who, when not acting for a public body but is on his or her own personal time, is expressing his or her own personal views, is expending his or her own personal funds, or is providing his or her own personal volunteer services.
(2) A person who knowingly violates this section is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable, if the person is an individual, by a fine of not more than $1,000.00 or imprisonment for not more than 1 year, or both, or if the person is not an individual, by 1 of the following, whichever is greater:
(a) A fine of not more than $20,000.00.
(b) A fine equal to the amount of the improper contribution or expenditure.