News Story

College Pays $75 Fine For Illegal Electioneering

President used taxpayer-funded equipment to ask for $7.1 million tax hike

The president of a Michigan public college and another administrator used the college’s email system to send mass emails asking for “support” of a property tax increase that would bring in millions of dollars for the institution.

While the actions appear to have violated state campaign finance laws, the college was allowed to make a deal with the Secretary of State and pay a $75 civil fine without admitting guilt. Voters had by that time already approved the tax increase.

Last month, the president of Schoolcraft College, in Livonia, accepted and signed an agreement with the state and paid the fine.

Email correspondences from Schoolcraft College President Conway Jeffress were scrutinized by the Michigan Department of State’s Elections Bureau for allegedly “using public resources to expressly advocate” for a tax increase from 1.78 mills to 2.27 mills in Livonia, Clarenceville, Garden City, Northville, Plymouth and part of Canton. The millage increase, which Schoolcraft College estimated will generate an additional $7.1 million in revenue in its first year, was approved by voters in the election. When the college proposed a millage increase three years earlier, voters rejected it.

In a June 2017 email, Jeffress said, “We desperately need your support for this ballot proposal.” And in the subject line of an email sent in October 2018, he wrote “Support of our Nov. 6 Millage Restoration.” Both emails were sent using his college email account.

Michigan elections law allows public bodies, such as local school districts, to use public money to educate voters about upcoming tax proposals, but it does not allow those entities to expressly advocate for them. Express advocacy is defined by using the phrases “vote yes,” “vote no,” “elect,” “defeat,” “support” or “oppose.”

In the month before the November 2018 election, Livonia-based attorney Karen Woodside contacted both the state elections bureau and Schoolcraft College over what she believed to be violations of Michigan’s campaign finance law. The elections bureau told Woodside that her complaint likely wouldn’t be addressed until after the election.

Woodside’s complaint to the elections bureau highlighted an email sent on behalf of Jeffress by Schoolcraft College executive assistant and board secretary Karla Frentzos on Oct. 24, 2018, at 2:51 p.m., which had the subject line “Support of our Nov. 6 Millage Restoration.”

On June 8, 2017, at 3:11 p.m., Jeffress sent an email from his Schoolcraft email account, which included the word “support.”

The email reads in part: “We desperately need your support for this ballot proposal. This will benefit you personally, the students, the College, and our community.”

Woodside also produced emails sent by other members of the Schoolcraft College staff that could be considered to be in violation of the state’s campaign finance law, though in its investigation, the elections bureau considered only emails sent by Jeffress.

Joyce Tellitocci, a media specialist at the college, sent an email to recipients who included “Admin Staff” and “Faculty — Everyone” on Nov. 1, 2018, at 8:37 a.m. In it, she said, “For every person we can win over to our side, they in turn will share the same message with others they know — thus causing a ripple effect!”

In an email sent on Nov. 1, 2018, at 8:50 a.m., Schoolcraft professor of accounting Michelle Randall shared a message she had posted on her class’s online Blackboard page in which she offered two extra credit points for voting.

The message reads in part, “I will also offer you 2 extra credit points for voting. Just send me a message indicating that you voted and list your polling district. That is all! Voting is about your FUTURE!”

According to attorney Eric Doster, an elections law expert who was once the general counsel for the state Republican Party, the actions of Schoolcraft College employees before the 2018 millage vote are typical among government bodies in Michigan.

“When the only cost for operating illegal millage activities is a civil fine of $75, other than the loss of any self-respect, Michigan law makes it far too easy for local governments to operate millage campaigns at taxpayer expense. This needs to change,” Doster said.

Doster also said he believes that offering extra credit in return for a student voting constitutes a misdemeanor under state law.

Neither Jeffress nor Woodside returned an email and phone call requesting comment.