As a general rule, gathering information each month and finally sitting down to bang out my column for the current issue, I attempt to avoid revisiting a subject on which I have recently written. But this month I feel I had little choice but to return once more to the topic of the lack of transparency in the halls of the Michigan legislature, and the need for increased regulations relative to ethical concerns.
Detroit Free Press writer Paul Egan broke with a story on May 15 outlining what has all the appearances of a conflict of interest on the part of Michigan State Senator Mike Kowall, a Republican representing the 15th District, which includes West Bloomfield, Orchard Lake and a number of west Oakland lakes area communities, and his wife Eileen, currently an Oakland County Commissioner from District 6, comprising White Lake, where they reside, and part of Waterford.
I should at this point acknowledge that I have known Mike Kowall for a number of years, dating back to when he was first in the Michigan House in the 1998-2002 period and then as supervisor for White Lake Township before first being elected to the Senate in 2010, having covered him as I ran a western Oakland County publishing group for over three decades. As far as someone in my position can legitimately have friends who are in government, I would consider both Mike and Eileen in that class. Like everyone else, that does not give them, so to speak, a “get our of jail card” if they cross an ethical line, real or perceived, which they very well may have in this case because it certainly does not pass the proverbial smell test.
Eileen Kowall is a registered lobbyist with the state of Michigan, employed by MGS Consultants of Lansing. Nothing new there. Our Oakland Confidential gossip column first carried that information a couple of months earlier. Interestingly, when confronted with a question about her lobbying while on the county board, Eileen responded that she has maintained a low profile on the issue because “people will use it to attack me,” especially if she seeks to replace her husband in the Michigan Senate when his current term expires. Eileen was a member of the Michigan House of Representatives from 2009-2014, and prior to that was a county commissioner from 2003-2008.
Her duel income position and possible conflicts were noted, I am told, by more than one person at the recent Senate GOP Annual Fundraiser in Lansing, with one fellow lobbyist even noting that she was going to have to “decide between the two soon,” perhaps an omen of what the couple is now facing.
Eileen's lobbying firm/employer, a five employee operation, has been retained by the Amaya Gaming Group, a subsidiary of Amaya Services Ltd., a Canadian online gaming company that is pushing nationally and on a state-by-state basis to get online gambling and poker playing legalized in this country. MGS Consultants of Lansing, first formed in 2007, is ranked by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network as number 17 among the top 200 lobbying firms in our state.
Mike Kowall, now in his second term as a senator and as Majority Floor Leader, is one of the prime proponents of Senate Bill 889 that would open the door for Internet gambling by existing state casinos. Among the multiple backers of this bill is the Amaya Gaming Group, which sent officials to an early May hearing before a Michigan Senate committee of which Mike Kowall is a member.
Detroit Free Press reporter Egan's piece quoted MGS Consultants founder Jeremiah Mankopf as saying that there was no conflict because he was actually the lead member of his firm that was working on the Internet gaming bill and has been for a number of years, long before Eileen Kowall was hired, after she left the House in December of 2014, rejoined the county board of commissioners and then became a registered lobbyist in February of 2015. Mike Kowall, the Detroit Free Press tells us, dismissed the possible conflict because his wife is not “working directly” on this project, even though she attended the early May hearing with other members of MGS Consultants.
Unfortunately, we have no way of attempting to confirm what we are being told by Senator Kowall because the rules and law are lacking when it comes financial disclosure, conflict of interest and access to lawmakers' records because they were essentially not included in any government disclosure legislation that has been adopted in the past.
So I use this space, once again, to ask readers of this publication to take a moment to weigh in with their state Representatives and Senators to urge passage of pending legislation (Legislative Open Records Act) and extension of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to cover the governor's office. The two, which have now moved to the House floor, would allow the public and the press to use the FOIA to gain access to documents in situations like this.
Some of you already e-mailed me when you took time to do this back in April, but we need even more of you to help bring pressure on behalf of these proposals, although they are not perfect and just a start on reforming how business is conducted in Lansing.
If we can get this legislation passed, then work can start – either through the legislature (doubtful) or a ballot issue – to require some form of financial disclosure on the part of Lansing officials and some restriction – at least a waiting period – on the revolving door that allows lawmakers to leave office and then immediately begin lobbying their former colleagues, and other mandates on legislative ethics. All long overdue.
Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Rochester, Rochester Hills:
Marty Knollenberg – firstname.lastname@example.org
Bloomfield Township, Oakland Township:
Jim Marleau – email@example.com
Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township:
Mike McCready – firstname.lastname@example.org
Rochester, Rochester Hills:
Michael Webber – email@example.com