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Michigan County Clerk’s Campaign Finance Flubs Explained—Kinda

by P.D. Lesko

Washtenaw County Clerk Lawrence Kestenbaum is a Democrat. He sat on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners from 1983–1988, and was a Washtenaw County Commissioner from 2000–02. In 2004, he was elected as the Washtenaw County Clerk/Register of Deeds, the first Democrat in that position in 72 years.

On September 11, 2012 A2Politico revealed that Washtenaw County Clerk Lawrence Kestenbaum (right) had neglected to submit his most recent Annual Campaign statement on time and was assessed a modest fine. That piece also revealed that Kestenbaum had missed the September 6, 2012 primary post-election campaign finance filing deadline. However, after the A2P post went live, a batch of pages were posted to the Washtenaw County Clerk’s Campaign Finance page, and the pages titled “Post-Election Campaign Statement for: Primary.” After the September 11, 2012 A2Politico piece was posted, Kestenbaum emailed an explanation on September 14th in response to questions about why he’d submitted the wrong forms, and why those forms had ended up being linked to the County’s official campaign finance web site:

My treasurer sends me a PDF of my campaign finance forms through email.  Obviously I printed and submitted the wrong one (on September 11) for the September 6 reporting date.  I have now printed and submitted the correct form.

I think this means I will be paying an additional late fee, that is, $150 for six days instead of $75 for three days. My staff puts CFR forms on the web site.

I had the completed form for September 6 (in email) ahead of time, as my treasurer was going out of town.  It is entirely my fault that I submitted them late.

In my own defense, I should say that we had a sewer problem at my house, which took a whole lot of my time and attention. Our front yard was dug up (twelve feet deep, which turned out to be deeper than the equipment originally brought could go) and the sewer replaced.

That doesn’t excuse my tardiness, but perhaps explains it a bit.

The signed cover sheet was stamped as received by the Clerk’s office on September 11, 2012 and was dated July 27, 2012 and signed by Kestenbaum and his campaign Treasurer Denise W. Baker. It was, in fact, a copy of the same pre-election campaign finance disclosure page submitted on July 27, 2012 at 4:47 p.m. Closer inspection of the documents submitted by the Washtenaw County Clerk as his missing post-election primary campaign finance forms on September 11th shows that the box “Pre-Election” is checked, as it is on the July 27th documents.

Except for the missing pages of the September 11th document (only every other page was scanned in, according to Kestenbaum in an explanation), Larry Kestenbaum’s pre- and post-election campaign finance disclosure forms were identical, with the set filed on July 27, 2012 identified as the campaign finance forms due on September 6, 2012 and turned in by Kestenbaum on September 11, 2012.

A2Politico reported that Kestenbaum was the only county clerk in the state of Michigan to miss the September 2012 campaign finance disclosure deadline, and in fact is the only county clerk in the state who has failed to file campaign finance forms.

After Kestenbaum’s missing campaign finance forms went live, A2Politico got a tip from a reader to check out the finance forms submitted by the County Clerk and stamped by the County Clerk’s office as officially submitted on September 11, 2012 at 12:45 p.m. The A2Politico piece was posted at 2:33 p.m. on September 11, 2012, and while Kestenbaum’s pre-election campaign finance disclosures were posted on the City Clerk’s web site, his post-election campaign finance forms did not appear on the site at the time the A2Politico piece went live.

According to an official in the Elections Division in Kestenbaum’s office, Kestenbaum submitted his forms on September 11, 2012 to an office employee who marked the documents as officially filed in Washtenaw County, and who then scanned the documents to create PDF files. The employee did not examine the campaign finance forms for accuracy, or make the link to the PDF documents live. According to the same official, once forms are scanned in, the paper copies are placed in a folder for Mr. Ed Golembiewski—the head of the elections division—to “go over with a fine tooth comb.” Only Golembiewski, according to County Clerk’s office elections officials, is charged with examining campaign finance forms for accuracy. Only once forms have been examined for accuracy does Golembiewski make the link to the scanned documents live.

While it’s clear County Clerk Kestenbaum didn’t actually look at the campaign finance forms he submitted to his own office on September 11, 2012, the question remains why the mistake wasn’t discovered before the wrong forms were made live online. Was Golembiewski to blame? Kestembaum explained via email: “As to Ed’s ‘fine-tooth comb’, this round of filings occurred while he was in the middle of preparing the ballot for the November election – a huge project.  Now that the ballot has been finalized (9/13), I expect he will be catching up on other work.”

When asked if County Clerk Lawrence Kestenbaum could have activated the link to the inaccurate campaign finance forms, the Clerk’s Office employee paused and said, “Yes.” The employee quickly added that Kestenbaum “always goes on the other side of the desk when he turns in his forms. He’s a candidate.”

Joel Hondorp, CMC, is the Byron Township Clerk and a former president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks. When asked if it would be common for a clerk who oversees elections to miss deadlines for turning in her/his own campaign finance forms, Hondorp replied that in his experience it would be an “unprecedented” mistake. When asked whether a clerk should be expected to submit the correct campaign finance forms, Hondorp repled, “Yes, of course.”

Missing his own campaign finance deadlines multiple times isn’t the only reason Kestenbaum has been criticized by local Dems, many of whom distrust the County Clerk because of close ties to the local Hive Mind Collective. To make matters worse for himself, Kestenbaum has openly taken sides in campaigns, such as against Ward 5 Council member Mike Anglin in 2011, that include Dem. incumbents. Washtenaw County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum’s office has been criticized for being slow to improve the County’s campaign finance databases, and for allowing the sale of voter data by one of his staff members. In 2004, the year Kestenbaum was elected, West Liberty Information was formed as an LLC with James Dries as President. Dries was hired by Kestenbaum as the Chief Deputy Clerk and Register of Deeds in January, 2005, one year after Dries formed his corporation. West Liberty Information, LLC is described by Dries on his LinkedIn page thusly: “I compile and market a mailing list based on registered voters residing in Washtenaw County, Michigan. The list is updated quarterly and voting data is added as soon as it becomes available. Customers include the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, Washtenaw Community College, non-profits, various county-wide and school district millage campaigns and many campaigns for local office.”

Clerks and registrars of voter’s offices around the country will sell voter data for election, governmental, scholarly or political research purposes. However, it’s common to require that individuals or organizations that purchase regulated voter data don’t sell, lease, or loan the data out to others.

While, there is no ownership link between Kestenbaum and West Liberty Information, according to records filed with the State of Michigan, the question remains why Kestenbaum’s Chief Deputy Clerk is selling mailing lists “based on registered voters residing in Washtenaw County” on the side.

Kestenbaum is running for re-election in 2012 and his website has the tagline “Count Every Vote.” Well, kinda. In the 2012 August primary, there were several requests for recounts. It was discovered that in one of the county’s municipalities several of the pouches containing ballots cast had been incorrectly sealed, in another municipality a contested millage vote had to stand because all of the pouches that contained the ballots cast had been sealed incorrectly. In Ann Arbor, in a hotly contested City Council election in which the incumbent won by only 18 votes, one Ward 4 precinct was not able to be recounted because a pouch’s seal had not been properly affixed. Kestenbaum’s office issued no explanation concerning whether sewer work at his house was to blame for those problems, as well.

As for his “corrected” post-election campaign finance forms, they are neither stamped as officially received, nor dated, by the Clerk’s Office. 

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Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=14460

11 Comments for “Michigan County Clerk’s Campaign Finance Flubs Explained—Kinda”

  1. @Larry Kestenbaum:

    The last time I attempted to research on the campaign finance database, I was unable to enter a search for campaign contributions for a specific donor. For instance, If I wished to see which local and county campaign committees a specific citizen, I was unable to enter that citizen’s name in a search engine to get a contributions history report for that person. I can do that on the Michigan Secretary of State’s campaign finance database and the Macomb County Clerk’s Election Division’ database.

    Also, there is no database for accessing Washtenaw County Circuit Court lawsuit histories online. Both the Oakland County Circuit Court and Macomb County Circuit Court have databases where case numbers and individuals may be placed in a search engine so case information and docket histories may be downloaded from one’s own computer rather than having to call the circuit court clerk’s office or having to go down to the records clerk for a search. Having these databases would save employee time and streamline the process.

  2. @Larry Kestenbaum thanks for your replies.

  3. A few more things:

    (1) I am not aware of criticisms of the campaign finance
    database and web site. I commonly hear praise for how
    quickly we make that information available online.

    (2) Other states may allow no-resale clauses in sale of
    public data, but Michigan courts have struck these down.

    (3) One unique element of Michigan election law is the
    concept of a precinct being “not recountable” due to
    errors made by the precinct workers. I have advocated
    for years that this law be changed to allow such
    precincts to be examined and recounted.

    (4) County and local clerks strive to train and
    supervise precinct workers to adhere to procedures
    for properly sealing ballot containers. I have
    supported the requirement that every local jurisdiction
    have a “receiving board” to review the correctness and
    completeness of every precinct on election night.
    However, even with receiving boards, those mistakes
    sometimes slip through.

    (5) My office doesn’t see the ballot containers
    unless and until there is a recount.

  4. I’m a little surprised to be accused of being part of the
    City Council “hive mind”. Last October, I wrote a letter
    to the Council (as a citizen, not as County Clerk) which
    was published in full by local media. The letter included
    the following passage:

    ———-

    “A city council is not judged by the good intentions of its
    members. It is judged by what it accomplishes, or fails to
    accomplish, as a body.

    “Each one of you is well qualified to sit where you do, and
    most of you are my friends.

    “But your group process has completely failed. All I hear
    is mutual blame, and no investment in the group’s endeavor.
    Your total is much less than the sum of the parts.

    “I have been a defender and apologist for this council since
    long before any of you were members of it. I spoke up for
    you when your deliberations looked messy, or your priorities
    seemed odd. I spoke up for you when you were embarrassed
    about emails you exchanged. I have supported most of you in
    your individual campaigns.

    “But even I can see that difficulty with group process has
    gotten this body into trouble again and again. If you are
    worried about the council’s image, you should think back on
    all those events and hang your heads in shame.”

    ———-

    It was not my intent to get involved in the Ward 2 race
    which was going on at the time, but I’ve been told that
    my letter helped Jane Lumm in her campaign to oust then-
    incumbent council member Stephen Rapundalo.

    • Larry, many Democrats helped Jane Lumm, a longtime Republican, soundly defeat Steve Rapundalo.

      The Council Party, like certain elected officials at the county level, need to be voted out of office.

    • @Larry, would it be impolite if I pointed out that Leah Gunn put you in office and her PAC has been helping you pay off your campaign debt?

      May I also point out that you helpfully down-played Eric Sturgis’ slip-up of running for the same delegate position in two different counties at the same time? A staffer in your office told me that doing so was a “serious” issue, and the Oakland County Clerk’s office official said pretty much the same thing—that Sturgis had committed a serious offense. You. however, told AnnArbor.com running as a precinct delegate in two counties at the same time wasn’t anything you’d worry about. Leah Gunn backed Eric Sturgis, as well as you.

      • No, Leah Gunn did not “put me in office”. Indeed, she
        did not endorse my candidacy for county clerk in 2004,
        and did not return any of my phone calls that year.
        Further, she allowed her name (with a supportive quote)
        to appear in my opponent’s ad in the Ann Arbor News.

        I do not begrudge her that. Peggy Haines was the
        incumbent county clerk in 2004, and I did not expect
        people within county government at the time to
        endorse against her.

        I appreciate the support she has given to me and
        my office since the 2004 election.

        And no, Leah Gunn did not “help me pay off my
        campaign debt.”

        First of all, it isn’t paid off — far from it.

        Second, the transaction you’re referring to was an
        in-kind contribution, which put zero cash into my
        campaign treasury. It reflected one-quarter of
        the cost of a flyer which was created to support
        Jerry Clayton for sheriff — when I was unopposed
        for re-election.

        As to Eric Sturges, qualifications for precinct
        delegate are under the authority of the political
        parties — not me. I don’t believe he could even
        be prosecuted over this.

        And contrary to your implication, I did not
        suppport or endorse him (or his opponent) for city
        council.

        • @Larry, In February 2011 at a meeting of the County Commissioners at which you discussed the upcoming redistricting, Gunn was quoted as saying she supported your candidacy. Leah Gunn sat there and lied to your face, to the media and the public?? Sheesh.

          In 2004, you got donations from the usual CM suspects: Lowenstein, Greden, Eunice Burns, Mark Bernstein, David Nacht, Jean Carlberg, Graham Teall, Tony Derezinski.

          Rather than run against Leah Gunn, you decided not to run for County Commissioner. Leah Gunn, her PAC and Barbara Levin Bergman (her side-kick) have helped you pay off a good chunk of your self-funded campaign debt.

          • Larry Kestenbaum

            I would say, rather, that she and Barbara made their support for me retroactive after I won.

            I was appointed, then elected, to represent the former 4th county commission district, which had wildly attenuated boundaries (it had been designed in 1991 to elect a Republican). A district like that was not going to be re-created in 2001, so I expected my time on the board to be short.

            I also announced, well in advance, that I would not run against any other Democratic incumbents. It was not any special favor to anyone, and it
            certainly didn’t win me any support in 2004.

          • Larry Kestenbaum

            In 2004, I got donations from a lot of Democrats, including folks like Jane Michener and Gwen Nystuen who have become critics of most of the folks you
            listed.

            People associated with the city of Ann Arbor in 2004, including the mayor and council, were notably supportive of my candidacy because of the then-feud between the county clerk’s office and the city clerk’s office.

            The PAC you are referring to is not Leah Gunn’s PAC, rather, it was an association of myself, Jerry Clayton, Brian Mackie, and Janis Bobrin, as “Washtenaw Leadership” to support Jerry in the 2008 primary for sheriff. Leah Gunn agreed to help. I personally donated $1,000 to it. The money all went for a mailing of flyers supporting Jerry Clayton.

            Yes, one quarter of the cost shows up as an in-kind donation on my campaign finance report, but that’s because my picture was on the flyer. No money came back to me. You can’t pay debts with in-kind contributions!

  5. A few comments:

    (1) Jim Dries is in charge of the deeds office, and has
    no official dealings with any voter data. His own list
    development is not done on County time or with County
    owned resources.

    (2) Anyone may purchase Washtenaw County voter lists from
    my office (on CD) for 50 cents. This information is public
    record and not secret.

    (3) I have never personally made any changes to anything
    in the campaign finance database, full stop.

    (4) As an election official, I am fair and impartial to
    all candidates, and I don’t think my handling of this
    role has been criticized.

    (5) As a partisan elected official and politician, however,
    I do support and oppose candidates and issues, and yes,
    I have sometimes opposed incumbents. For example, in 2008,
    I strongly supported Jerry Clayton in his campaign to
    oust incumbent county sheriff Dan Minzey.

    (continued next comment)

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