News Story

DTE Donated More Than $840,000 to Democrats, Pro-Whitmer Groups in 2018

Consumers Energy was also heavily involved in politicking

Michigan’s largest electricity and gas utility gave $400,185 to groups that either directly or indirectly spent money on behalf of Gretchen Whitmer before and after her gubernatorial election victory in November 2018, according to recent filings with state energy regulators. The utility also gave $440,204 to state Democrats and $120,056 to state and national Republicans in 2018.

DTE donated $320,148 to Progressive Advocacy Trust, which the Michigan Campaign Finance Network described as being loosely associated with the Ingham County Democratic Party. The network ultimately turned around and donated $1.8 million to pro-Whitmer groups during last year’s primary and general elections. DTE also donated $80,037 to Michigan Transition 2019, which assisted then Gov.-elect Whitmer prepare to take office.

The regulated monopoly utility also gave $440,204 to the Michigan Democratic State Center (Michigan Democratic Party), $80,037 to the Michigan Republican Party and $40,019 to the Republican Governors Association in 2018.

Political donations by DTE accounted for only a portion of the millions of dollars Michigan’s two largest monopoly utilities spent on civic and political causes during 2018, an election year.

According to the official documents, DTE spent $3,779,536 “for the purpose of influencing public opinion” on elections, lobbying, and other civic and political activities. This amount included $205,535 for advocacy, $298,160 for consulting and $1,262,426 for governmental affairs, according to the company’s May 2019 filing with state utility regulators.

The figures may also include contributions to super PACs, which may engage in spending related to political campaigns but are not required to disclose their donors. The numbers do not include voluntary contributions from employees and others to corporate political action committees, which can contribute to individual candidates, subject to limits specified in law.

Filings from DTE also show that in 2018, the company gave more money to groups supporting Democratic candidates than ones supporting Republicans. The groups receiving donations from the state’s largest utility in 2018 included:

  • Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce — $562,024
  • Michigan Democratic State Center — $440,204
  • Progressive Advocacy Trust — $320,148
  • Edison Electric Institute — $149,878
  • Michigan Transition 2019 — $80,037
  • Michigan Republican Party — $80,037
  • Michigan Alliance for Business — $40,019
  • Republican Governors Association — $40,019
  • Michigan Retailers Association — $40,019
  • 40 unnamed organizations — $145,400

DTE provided a statement in response to questions about its political contributions.

“As an energy company, our customers are impacted each day by the decisions of federal, state and local officials. This requires DTE Energy to be an active participant in the political and civic processes. Our policy on political participation and our public disclosures are available on our website,” the statement reads. “The page you are referencing in the P521 filing is a line-item list of 2018 expenses that will be charged directly to shareholders, not recovered in customer bills.”

Craig Mauger, the executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said the fact that DTE’s political donations to Progressive Advocacy Trust can be found only on one page of a filing with state energy regulators reflects poorly on the state’s climate for political transparency.

“The fact that we’re finding out that a highly regulated business gave a large sum of money to an account playing in the governor’s race six months after the election is over and we’re only finding out through a 400-page document is indicative of why we’re rated 50th out of all 50 states for transparency and accountability,” Mauger said.

Consumers Energy, Michigan’s other large utility company, spent $6.2 million to influence political opinion in 2018. Of that amount, $332,500 was spent on advocacy and $344,163 went to consulting expenses; $4,288,452 was budgeted for governmental affairs activity, according to its May 2019 filing with state regulators. Consumers also gave money to interest groups, paying $152,409 to the Edison Electric Institute and $21,350 to the American Gas Association.

The 2018 filing did not include any donations to Citizens for Energizing Michigan’s Economy, a tax-exempt nonprofit social welfare organization that spent an estimated $830,000 on TV advertisements during state elections last year. In the company’s 2017 filing, Consumers disclosed a $20 million donation to the group.

According to filings from the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, an official from the utility took on a role at CEME sometime during 2018. Brandon Hofmeister, senior vice president of governmental, regulatory, and public affairs at the utility, is now also vice president of CEME.

Katie Carey, Consumers Energy director of media relations, confirmed in an email that Hofmeister sits on the CEME board of directors on his personal time.

In February, Hofmeister testified before the Senate Energy and Technology Committee and was quoted by The Detroit News as saying that CMS Energy, which is the corporate holding company for all the company’s various utility interests, is “interested and active in Michigan public policy.” He said that a previous agreement with state energy regulators “doesn’t impact any activities that CMS Energy might pursue in the future.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.