Non-profit organization donates $ 14,000 to Detroit city councilman’s chief of staff

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A non-profit organization linked to Detroit City Councilor Scott Benson paid more than $ 14,000 in unspecified reimbursements and $ 4,000 in campaign salaries to Benson’s chief of staff, Carol Banks, during a campaign election of 2016.

The nonprofit, Save Detroit Jobs, raised $ 105,000 that year to support a proposed community benefits ordinance before voters in Detroit. In addition to payments to banks, Save Detroit Jobs paid other Benson staff to distribute literature during the campaign.

It was not clear if Banks was working for Benson at the time of the payments. She started working for Benson in January 2014 and is still part of his team today. But it was not immediately clear whether she might have taken time off during the election campaign.

Benson and Banks are among a handful of Detroit officials linked to a public investigation into corruption in progress this escalated last month when the FBI raided Benson’s home, his downtown council office, Banks’s home and other locations.

Benson and Banks have not been charged with any felony. At the same time, federal agents also raided the homes of city councilor Janeé Ayers and her chief of staff, Ricardo Silva, who have not been charged with a crime.

Next week, however, City Councilor Andre Spivey, who has been charged with conspiracy to bribe, is due in federal court. Federal prosecutors allege that Spivey and a still anonymous member of its staff accepted more than $ 35,000 in bribes between 2016 and 2020, including $ 1,000 that Spivey took in 2018 from an undercover FBI agent.

Although the FBI has not publicly clarified the purpose of the investigation, the search warrant for Benson’s office shows that agents were looking for campaign fundraising documents and information on nonprofits with a tax-exempt structure similar to Save Detroit Jobs.

“Records containing information regarding 501 (c) (4) welfare organizations, committees to be elected and campaign funding, including bank statements, check stubs, books, letters, receipts and campaign documentation “were among the types of documents the FBI had a probable cause to seize, according to a copy of the search warrant for Benson’s office, which the Free Press obtained through a request for public documents.

Benson’s attorney, Steve Fishman, declined to comment Wednesday on Save Detroit Jobs, Benson’s role in the non-profit organization, and his payments to Banks, the city council’s chief of staff.

Benson’s name does not appear on the registration documents for Save Detroit Jobs. But Banks is listed as the point of contact in documents filed with the Wayne County campaign finance office. The association’s address was a suite in a community center on the east side of Detroit that also houses one of Benson’s council offices.

In total, banks received nearly 70 separate refunds from Save Detroit Jobs in November 2016. Most were small refunds between $ 100 and $ 200. There was a refund of $ 6,486. In total, Banks received $ 14,279, according to campaign fundraising records from Save Detroit Jobs.

Campaign statements do not provide information on what Banks was reimbursed for.

Contacted by phone on Wednesday, Banks said: “No comment, bye.” She then hung up.

The FBI declined to comment.

Following: Detroit City Council aides linked to FBI corruption investigation: What we know

Following: FBI raids homes of Detroit council members Janee Ayers, Scott Benson, chief of staff to Benson

Last year, the Internal Revenue Service retroactively awarded Save Detroit Jobs tax exempt status, effective September 2016, as a 501 (c) (4) organization.

The IRS defines these nonprofits as welfare organizations that “must function primarily to promote the common good and the general well-being of people in the community.” Political activity is allowed, but it cannot be the main activity of the organization.

Simon Schuster, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said it was unusual for organizations to be registered both as nonprofits and as political action committees.

“To see, obviously from these records, this PAC acting as one in the same is very unusual,” said Schuster. “Having said that, however, the voting issues committees in Michigan are so loosely regulated that they can more or less fund funding from any source that a nonprofit can – that is, from any source. unlimited money from corporate donors.

Unspecified campaign refunds are common in Michigan, Schuster said.

“Unfortunately, too often in Michigan campaign finance records, candidates and PACs have essentially cut individuals, or often themselves, off a refund check – leaving the public wondering what they’re being paid for.” , did he declare.

Allowing campaigns to pay refunds without any descriptive information is essentially a loophole in campaign finance, he said.

“The importance of our campaign finance laws is that the public can see how politicians collect and spend their money,” Schuster said. “We don’t know what Carol Banks was used for.”

Most of the contributions to the Save Detroit Jobs campaign in 2016 came from the business world.

Donors include Michigan’s Blue Cross Blue Shield, which donated $ 25,000; Paradise Valley Real Estate Holdings of Detroit, which donated $ 10,000, and Jenkins Construction, which donated $ 4,000.

In addition to repayments to banks, Save Detroit Jobs paid nearly $ 9,000 in legal fees to law firm Dykema Gossett and spent nearly $ 23,000 on literature distribution, according to campaign fundraising records.

At least two Benson City Council staff, Terry Catchings and Kerwin Wimberley, each received money for literature distribution, according to records. The Catches received $ 3,155 and Wimberley received $ 1,453, according to the records. Catchings and Wimberley could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

The poll question backed by Save Detroit Jobs, Proposition B, was one of two community benefits ordinances offered to voters in Detroit in the fall of 2016. Detroit.

It was a controversial campaign.

While the voting measures were similar, most of the campaign revolved around Proposal A. Business interests and Mayor Mike Duggan called for a no vote. City Council President Brenda Jones and others supported Proposal A.

Proposal B applied to fewer development projects because its thresholds for triggering community participation were higher than proposal A.

Former State Senator Coleman A. Young II, in October 2016, called a campaign flyer funded by Save Detroit Jobs a dirty policy and an “act of corruption.”

The flyer promoted proposal B and featured an image of former Mayor Coleman A. Young.

“My dad is turning in his grave right now,” Young said at the time. “You didn’t get permission from me, and you didn’t get permission from the family. Shame on you. It’s disrespectful. It’s wrong, and we’ll beat you in November.”

Save Detroit Jobs issued a press release in response to the criticism. It included comments from Benson.

“I remain focused on creating jobs and responsibilities for the people of Detroit,” Benson said in the Save Detroit Jobs press release. “In fact, the process we outline in Proposition B hired 600 jobs in Detroit just last week. It creates economic opportunities now and ensures smart growth in the future. That’s the picture on. which we need to focus on. “

The following November, on election day, Proposal B was adopted by 53-47. The other community benefit proposal, Proposal A, failed.

Detroit Free Press reporter Dana Afana contributed to this report.

Contact Joe Guillen: [email protected]

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