Fieger case: Back to basics (Nov 27 2005)


Staff member
Fieger case: Back to basics
Sunday, November 27, 2005

In the circus case of lawyer Geoffrey Fieger and the State of Michigan, sensational sideshows have stolen the floodlights from what is supposed to be the main event, a serious instance of suspected campaign finance abuse.

But hot lights or not, there is no question about where the public's most important interests lie. The laws involved were written to inform citizens of who is paying for political campaigns, who is behind political advertising and to keep unions and corporations, including law firms, from direct spending to elect or defeat candidates.

In the Fieger case, the advertiser went by the name of Citizens for Judicial Reform. It paid $427,000 for television spots that ran in the last days before the 2004 general election, attacking the re-election candidacy of Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Markman. Not until June of 2005 did Mr. Fieger file papers acknowledging that he had paid for the ads. Uncertain is whether the money came from his own funds or from his law firm. Along the way, the Citizens for Judicial Reform had failed to register with the Department of State and it missed a January 31 deadline for disclosing its funding sources.

In March, after being unable to contact Citizens for Judicial Reform or its purported treasurer, state election officials referred the matter to the Office of the Attorney General. An assistant attorney general this month said state election officials couldn't locate the Citizens for Judicial Reform -- its address was found to be a burned-out tire store in Detroit -- and that the individual listed as treasurer, "Herb Charbenau," is not a real person.

One of the clear conclusions, obvious from this event, is the weakness of Michigan's campaign finance laws. For failure to file campaign disclosure reports, the fine is $1,000, pocket change for Mr. Fieger and for many others who bankroll political advertising. The deadlines themselves are similarly lax. An initial filing by Mr. Fieger in late January wouldn't have been

illegal, but it would have been almost three months after voters had gone to the polls.

Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land has advocated mandating disclosure of contributions as they come in and not allowing the spending of them until the disclosure reports are filed. She ought to press those points. Voters deserve to know the funding story on campaigns and ads before going to the polls.

The investigation by the Attorney General's Office now is tangled in federal and state lawsuits brought by Mr. Fieger, challenging the authority of the attorney general and the secretary of state to investigate his case. State authorities must not be intimidated by such tactics, but neither should they single out Mr. Fieger, irritant though he is to them, for greater attention than any other suspect in a similar case would receive. This inquiry must move forward in an altogether professional and above-board way.

Granted, that entails wading through some pretty deep clutter, not limited to Mr. Fieger's lawsuits. Mr. Fieger, the 1998 Democratic candidate for governor, has announced plans to run against Attorney General Michael Cox, a Republican, next year. Then there are accusations of a Fieger attempt to blackmail Mr. Cox over an extra-marital affair, and Mr. Cox's preemptive disclosure -- with his wife by his side -- that a number of years ago he did have such an episode. An affair is a sad marker in any couple's married life, made more so in this case by the public attention brought to it.

But neither the lawsuits, the affair, the blackmail allegations, the Fieger challenge to Mr. Cox's re-election or any of the various other spin-offs on this story should be allowed to distract from the starting point: the state's inquiry into what, if true, was a blindsiding of Michigan's voters and a blatant violation of state election laws.