Big bucks cost mayor credibility


Corporate interests don't write checks for heck of it
October 6, 2009 • From Lansing State Journal
By Derek Melot

Most of us in little ol' Lansing would notice if a $2,500 deposit appeared in our bank account unexpectedly, or if $2,500 didn't leave the account as planned.

For Mayor Virg Bernero, $2,500 has become a matter of some confusion and explanation.

Maybe all the confusion is because so much money has poured in and out of Bernero's so-called federal "527" account that a single small sum goes unnoticed.

If so, that shows just how much money has been flowing around the mayor; money donated from people who likely expect access and consideration from the mayor and his staff.

When we left Bernero's "City Administrative Account" last week, the mayor and his staff had not resolved questions of what happened to a $2,500 check from the Lansing Board of Water and Light.

The utility meant the check as a donation to a sister city conference last year. Instead, it ended up in the account Bernero uses to pay for travel, dining, entertainment and other what he terms "city-related" expenses.

Last week, the mayor admitted the confusion, but said the money had been spent from his account on the conference. But there were no reports to the IRS to confirm that expenditure.

Now, the mayor's staff reports that a "miscommunication" led to the money not being spent on the conference as claimed. It will be refunded to the local utility, whose leadership is probably wondering how it got dragged into a mess.

The larger question, though, is the propriety of even operating what looks like a personal political slush fund.

Nearly $200,000 has been raised by Bernero and his people since December 2005. And those who are contributing to the mayor aren't the type to just be generous.

Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO Dan Loepp and the larger Blue Cross family (including Accident Fund) have given $20,000 to the mayoral account. Tetra Tech and its employees - who are leading the work on Lansing's sewer separation - have contributed $9,000.

And behind these two large businesses are dozens of large checks from area attorneys and professionals.

These are sums donated on top of what Bernero has raised for his re-election campaign. And the money has been spent, judging by the reports to the IRS, in ways that have made it easier for Bernero to raise his political profile.

All of this appears entirely legal. Bernero is raising and spending and reporting (BWL notwithstanding) in accordance with the federal rules.

For his part, Bernero pitches the account as a city benefit. He can do things as mayor without sending receipts back to City Hall for payment. He even went so far as to sell this account as a type of "public-private partnership" that the city needs to move forward. Really.

Bernero could lead Lansing without this account. And by having it, he merely weakens his own credibility. Every time he supports policies that would prove helpful to those who have given him big checks, he can never prove to the public that his decisions are driven solely by the facts.

That's the price big money extracts in politics. It's a price Bernero should stop paying.

What do you think? Write Derek Melot, Lansing State Journal, 120 E. Lenawee St., Lansing, MI 48919. For past columns, visit

(CORRECTION: Total contributions to an account controlled by Mayor Virg Bernero from Tetra Tech and its employees are $18,000. The figure was incorrect in Derek Melot’s Oct. 6 column.)