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Two women charged in alleged "dark money scheme" involving Unlock Michigan

CBS News Detroit Digital Brief for Feb. 21, 2024
CBS News Detroit Digital Brief for Feb. 21, 2024 04:01

(CBS DETROIT) - Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced that charges have been filed against two women accused of being involved in a money scheme to use two nonprofits to fund Unlock Michigan.

Heather Lombardini, 47, of Okemos is accused of soliciting money for the state ballot question initiative through Michigan! My Michigan! and the Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility (MCFR), and violated the Michigan Campaign Finance Act by using the organizations as a buffer to avoid disclosing donors.

She is charged with two counts of failing to file a statement of organization for campaign finance, one count of failing to file a campaign statement for a ballot committee, and one count of uttering and publishing.

Sandy Baxter, 63, of Caledonia, is charged with perjury for allegedly lying under oath about her involvement in the scheme.

Officials say the nonprofits are connected to former Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey. However, Nessel said Shirkey would not be charged in the investigation because he was not connected as a director, whereas Lombardini worked as treasurer of MMM and president of MCFR.

Together, the organizations allegedly contributed more than $2.4 million to Unlock Michigan between June 2020 and October 2020, nearly 86% of total funding, according to an affidavit.

The ballot initiative challenged Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's COVID-19 executive orders and sought to repeal the Emergency Powers of Governor Act of 1945. The state high court struck down Whitmer's emergency powers.

"Political staff and consultants are what keeps Michigan's campaign fundraising machine moving, regardless of who is in office. They often have the expertise in Michigan's campaign finance laws and connections to big-moneyed donors that allow this type of fundraising to continue through endless election cycles and candidates.  Without these hired guns, these dark money operations would never exist," said Nessel at a press conference.

"I want to make it clear that both elected officials and their staff should be held accountable under the full extent of the law when their actions arise to criminality. However, this is yet another example of how our current campaign finance laws lack the appropriate language and teeth necessary to hold all bad actors accountable."

What the investigation revealed

An investigation came after Retired Michigan Chamber of Commerce officer Robert LaBrant filed a complaint in 2021, alleging that Shirkey and Lombardini participated in a "dark money scheme" to fund Unlock Michigan LaBrant initially filed a complaint in 2020; however, it was dismissed due to insufficient evidence. 

The affidavit said search warrants for Lombardini's email accounts revealed communications with Shirkey and Baxter, who initially testified that she did not do any fundraising for Shirkey.

Emails also showed Shirkey and Lombardini directing donors to MMM and MCFR. In one incident, Lombardini allegedly communicated with the lead organizer of Unlock Michigan that "she had more money for them and even instructed a donor to write a check to MCFR.

"Lombardini's emails summarily show her following up with donors that Shirkey had contacted, scheduling Unlock Michigan pitch meetings, and dealing with the administrative work required for fundraising," read the affidavit. "It is clear she not only took part in the coordination between Unlock Michigan, MMM, and MCFR, but was aware of and facilitated the solicitations made by Shirkey for Unlock Michigan and received the resulting contributions for Unlock Michigan into MMM and MCFR accounts."

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