Industry observers say utilities generally supported ending lockdowns. Records show group led by DTE execs used its power and influence to help make it happen.
A DTE Energy-linked dark money nonprofit funded a group behind the effort to repeal Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency order powers and end the state’s Covid lockdowns and restrictions, according to Internal Revenue Service records.
The records revealing a $100,000 donation made in 2020 were not publicly available until late 2021. They show the money was contributed to another dark money nonprofit that served as a primary funder of the Unlock Michigan repeal campaign.
Industry observers say utilities generally opposed lockdowns: During the first wave of Covid restrictions, many voluntarily or were required to stop shutting off service to financially struggling customers. Unlock Michigan ultimately succeeded, complicating Whitmer’s efforts to order restrictions and ending any serious discussion of shut-off moratoriums that included DTE, the state’s largest energy utility.
“DTE is willing to use an incredible amount of money by any means that they have to try to control our state’s politics,” said Art Reyes, director for We The People MI, a consumer advocacy group that campaigns for utility industry reform.
Michigan was a global flashpoint in the cultural and political fight over how governments should handle Covid. Whitmer’s lockdowns were effective at controlling the virus’s spread, but right-wing opposition to the restrictions culminated with multiple protests and armed protestors storming the state legislature in mid-2020.
Against this backdrop, the DTE-affiliated dark money group made its contribution.
A Whitmer spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement to Planet Detroit, DTE spokesperson Peter Ternes said the company “unequivocally” did not make the donation.
“We do not speak” for the dark money group, Ternes added. DTE also denied making a donation when asked by a Planet Detroit reporter in 2020.
However, state and federal records show how the money likely moved between DTE and Unlock Michigan. IRS records reveal a 2020 donation made by Michigan Energy First, a DTE-linked dark money nonprofit, to a dark money nonprofit called Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility.
Michigan Energy First’s three officers are DTE executives who work with an attorney, federal records show, and company executives have controlled the nonprofit since it was created in 2014. Michigan Energy First has funded DTE allies in the state legislature, promoted the company’s interests on social media, funded community organizations whose leaders in turn support DTE in regulatory hearings, and financially backed or opposed political initiatives like Unlock Michigan.
Though DTE denies involvement with Michigan Energy First, its argument is based on technicalities, and it’s widely considered to be DTE’s dark money nonprofit, said Matt Kasper, deputy director of the Energy and Policy Institute, a national nonprofit that tracks utilities’ political spending.
“When they say they don’t control [Michigan Energy First] or it’s not part of the company … sure, it’s not part of the utility corporation itself, but they’ve had their top lobbyists running it for eight years,” Kasper said. “Customers see right through it, and regulators and lawmakers do, too.”
Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, which received the $100,000 donation, was the largest 2020 funder of Unlock Michigan, the ballot initiative campaign to repeal the governor’s emergency order powers.
Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility’s contributions accounted for about $660,000 out of the $765,000 Unlock Michigan had raised by late July 2020. Its donations comprised about $1.8 million out of $2.8 million raised by the year’s end. Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility and Unlock Michigan also shared attorneys, and the latter recorded about $85,000 for in-kind legal work, early 2021 state campaign finance records show.
“They’re clearly in pursuit of the same mission or goals,” Kasper said. “When you start to see the sharing of funds or the allocation of a huge part of [Michigan Citizens For Fiscal Responsibility’s] budget to an organization, sharing of staff … then folks understand it’s essentially the same entity.”
DTE declined to make company executives available for an interview, and the executives did not respond to a request for comment sent through a Michigan Energy First attorney.
The attorney claimed “there is no pass-through” of funds from DTE and Michigan Energy First to Unlock Michigan.
2019 IRS records, the last publicly available for Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility on the IRS website, show it spent $245,000 on expenses. It could be argued that DTE’s funding went toward expenses or other political spending and not toward the Unlock Michigan campaign.
However, Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility spent $2,500 on political grants in 2019 before spending at least $1.8 million on the Unlock Michigan campaign in 2020.
“That was the mission of MCFR that year,” Kasper said, adding that political groups, like Unlock Michigan, often use dark money profits, like Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, when they are attempting to add a layer of secrecy to their operations or conceal their funders’ identity around controversial issues.
Reyes noted that DTE had voluntarily suspended shut-offs for three months in 2020 while other utilities across the state did the same. Further lockdowns that kept DTE customers out of work would have led to pressure for more moratoriums, Reyes said, and the contribution to the repeal effort was a move made “to protect their bottom line and shareholders.”
“The governor’s emergency order powers were a threat,” Reyes said. “To me, it seems like DTE was inoculating against being forced to do the right thing.”
Amid rumors in September 2020 that DTE and Consumers Energy were helping fund the repeal campaigns, a reporter asked DTE spokesperson Ternes whether the company had made a contribution to Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility or Unlock Michigan.
“DTE unequivocally is not financially supporting the Unlock Michigan/MI Citizens For Fiscal Responsibility campaign,” Ternes responded. “Furthermore, DTE has worked hand-in-hand with the governor to protect our customers, employees and the public throughout the Coronavirus pandemic. The actions taken by the state have slowed COVID transmission and death rates.”
Ternes repeated nearly the same statement when presented in December 2022 with proof of Michigan Energy First’s donation.
Consumers Energy also denied giving money to the campaign in 2020, and IRS records did not show a donation from its affiliated dark money group to Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility or Unlock Michigan
Throughout 2020, Whitmer’s pandemic handling drew approval levels that topped 60% statewide. It wasn’t until the following year that Covid restriction support began to wane, and the Unlock Michigan campaign was ultimately successful.
It collected around 500,000 signatures during the summer and fall of 2020 as part of the process to repeal the Emergency Powers of Governor Act of 1945, which the governor used as the basis for emergency orders during the Covid crisis. The state House and Senate in the summer of 2021 voted to repeal it using a provision in state law that allows ballot initiatives like Unlock Michigan to be enacted without a vote by state residents.
The revelation of DTE’s involvement underscores the need to rein in the monopoly utility’s political spending, Reyes said.
“It’s hard to see DTE’s dark money contributions as anything but toxic to democracy,” he added.