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Grosse Pointe schools group says secrecy of donors is needed to hide from bullies

John Wisely
Detroit Free Press

A political action committee buying advertising in the Grosse Pointe Board of Education race is funded by anonymous donors who fear the wrath of their political opponents, the group's founder said.

"There is intimidation and bullying happening if you have anything that doesn't agree with what the administration is promoting," Monica Palmer, the founder of Taxpayers for Grosse Pointe Schools, said Monday. "There were houses egged that had signs in their yards. Social media keyboard warrior bullying is extremely high."

Political yard signs for Grosse Pointe School Board candidates Ahmed Ismail, Lisa Papas, Lauren Nowicki, Cindy Pangborn and John Steininger in front of homes in Grosse Pointe on Oct. 21.

Palmer, a Republican activist, declined to release donor names;  the law does not require disclosure. She also declined to say how much the PAC has raised and spent, though those figures must be reported on an annual basis.

Palmer did say that the money for the ads comes from families in the school district who are unhappy with the direction of the district in recent years. Many of them oppose a controversial decision last year to close two elementary schools — Robert Trombly and Charles A. Poupard — and shift fifth-graders into the middle schools. 

Monica Palmer, founder of the Taxpayers for Grosse Pointe Schools PAC, speaks at the law office of her lawyer, Michael Schwartz, right, on Monday.

The PAC has made waves in the election through a series of communications that include full-page, color advertisements in the Grosse Pointe News newspaper, which remind voters that three candidates, Lauren Nowicki, Lisa Papas and incumbent Cindy Pangborn, oppose the reconfiguration and say they will reopen the schools. 

The ads don't directly urge voters to choose those candidates. Instead, they encourage voters to call the candidates and urge them "to protect our children."

Political yard signs for Grosse Pointe School Board candidates Kathleen Abke, George Bailey, Joseph Herd and Colleen Worden in front of homes in Grosse Pointe on Oct. 21.

Critics of the ads, the PAC and the candidates say the real opposition to the school closings is racial. One of the closed schools, Poupard Elementary, was located in Harper Woods and about 76% of its students were Black. Those students now attend other elementary schools in the district that had less-diverse student populations. 

Greg Bowens, spokesman for a group of parents that has filed a formal complaint about the ads, said they contain "dog whistles."

Ahmed Ismail, one of the candidates who is hoping to get elected to reopen the schools, scoffed at the notion the reopening is racially motivated.

"We've got legitimate equity and diversity issues here," Ismail said. "But if you're worried about the African-American population ... why would you close their school?"

He said kids who live near Trombly and Poupard schools deserve the same walkable elementary schools as other students in the district. Some of their parents may not have the resources to fight the district's decision to close their school.

"If this had happened in the middle of Grosse Pointe Farms, the school system would have been in court for years," he said. 

Ismail grew up in Harper Woods and attended Poupard Elementary School. He said his parents specifically chose to move there because they couldn't afford a home in Grosse Pointe, but wanted access to the school system.

Ismail wasn't mentioned in the ads placed by the PAC and said he doesn't know the people behind them. But he said attempts to turn a policy issue into a race issue is wrong.

Closing the schools was supposed to save $1.2 million a year, but when added costs such as busing those students to other buildings are included, the savings are almost nothing, Ismail said. What's more, the move is causing families to pull their kids out of the district, which will create even more money problems.

The move has been a gift to private schools in the area and beyond  as they have enrolled hundreds of students who previously attended Grosse Pointe Public schools, Ismail said.

Michael Schwartz, a lawyer representing the PAC, said claims of racial animus are bogus and meant to distract from the issue of the school closings. Opponents of the school closings say they don't save money and destroy a long-time Grosse Pointe tradition of kids walking to neighborhood schools.

The PAC is organized legally, as a social welfare organization, under section 501(c)4 of the tax code, Schwartz said. 

"They have nothing in terms of real evidence to show that the 501(c)4 has anything to do with racism whatsoever," Schwartz said. "But when you go out and you make claims that this or that or something else is racist, and you don't really have any genuine evidence, you know what that turns into? That turns into trivializing what racism is all about."

Schwartz said Congress gave such groups the right to hide their donors.

"There's a good reason for that, because if you're listed, and somebody has a great dislike for somebody who's contributing, they'll come around and they'll harass you. They'll bully you," he said. "The Congress decided when they enacted that statute, that they did not want people to have to suffer because they were trying to exercise their First Amendment rights."

Pangborn said in a statement that she's been harassed for her stances. 

"I have received hate mail that the Grosse Pointe police are investigating," Pangborn said. "Many trolls on Facebook have used the same language that was in that mail."

Schwartz didn't know that some residents had complained to the state about the PAC until he read about it in the Free Press, but said he wasn't worried because the PAC has acted legally.

Last year, Schwartz defended Barlow Communications, a firm that placed ads in the middle of a recall campaign aimed at three members of the board who voted to close the schools. One of the candidates, Judith Gafa, complained that the ads violated Michigan campaign finance laws by not disclosing who paid for them.

The Secretary of State's Office investigated the claim and ultimately dismissed it, "as the evidence is insufficient to support the conclusion that a violation occurred."

The letter to Gafa rejecting the complaint  said that the Michigan Campaign Finance Act prohibits communications that specifically urge voters to vote yes, vote no, elect, defeat, support or oppose a ballot question or candidate "using these or equivalent phrases."

"These advertisements lack words of direct advocacy and are exempted from the act's reach," Adam Fracassi of the Bureau of Elections wrote to Gafa in a December letter.

Schwartz said the ads placed by the Taxpayers for Grosse Pointe Schools also are exempt.

Such PACs are precluded from coordinating with candidates who may indirectly benefit from the messages. One of the candidates mentioned in the group's ads, Nowicki, told the Free Press she did see the advertisements, which included her photos and platform, before they were placed. She recommended changes, but the PAC didn't include her suggestion.

Critics argue her seeing the ads in advance, constitutes "coordination," which the law precludes. Schwartz disagreed.

"You gotta have something more than a picture that may or may not have been produced weeks ago, months ago, years ago," Schwartz said. "When you coordinate, you're working together. That wasn't working together."

Palmer said the candidate photos and platforms are public information that have been seen in numerous places.

"They provided their pictures, their likeness and their platform to several groups; the NAACP, League of Women Voters," she said. "How is it any different for them to provide public information to us?"

Simon Schuster, director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a watchdog group, said it's up to the state to determine whether the PACs actions constitute "coordination."

"Because the Michigan campaign finance law is so vague about so many things, it's left the department (of state) to sort of figure out and parse out these nuances and these subtle situations where there are circumstances that require their interpretation," he said. "It makes it very difficult for the average, everyday person to know what they can and cannot do."

The issue of transparency is only going to be become more important, Schuster said. 

"Unfortunately, this is becoming increasingly common practice," Schuster said. "I think that as the techniques of hiding money in political activity are becoming more well-known, more widespread, I think you'll see groups at all levels choosing to adopt these methods that avoid transparency and disclosure when they feel that it's convenient for them and benefits them."

Contact John Wisely: 313-222-6825 or jwisely@freepress.com. On Twitter @jwisely