MI: Enviros wary of corporate connections in Snyder cabinet
Environmental groups are hoping that close ties between some of Governor-elect Rick Snyder’s top aides and corporations involved in mining and exporting the state’s natural resources do not indicate a lack of commitment to protecting Michigan’s environment from exploitation for profit.
Bill Rustem, Snyder’s chief strategy adviser, has been a lobbyist with Public Sector Consultants and represented the Nestle corporation as it worked to establish a water bottling plant to export water from Mecosta County. More recently he represented Rio Tinto-subsidiary Kennecott as it worked to establish community support for a highly controversial nickel sulfide mine on state land near Lake Superior.
Dennis Muchmore, formerly a lobbyist with Muchmore Harrington Smalley and Associates, Inc. , is married to Deb Muchmore, who heads up public relations campaigns for both Nestle and Kennecott through her work at Marketing Resource Group. The website for this company refers to her as a “recognized media spokesperson on behalf of a number of challenging public issues,” and says that she “has developed special expertise in environmental, crisis and litigation communications.”
To be sure, both Rustem and Muchmore also have long histories of working on the pro-environment side. According to Rustem’s bio, while environment adviser to former Governor William Milliken he helped created the Natural Resources Trust Fund, which uses mineral rights royalties to purchase land for public recreation. Muchmore is a member of the Natural Resources Trust Fund Board and worked for two years as executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, one of the largest conservation groups in the state.
Faced with those mixed histories, some observers of recent state environmental politics told Michigan Messenger that they worry that people now charged with crafting policy and controlling access to the governor have ties to transnational corporations that stand to make billions off the privatization of the state’s natural resources.
Cynthia Pryor works for the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, which is suing the state for failing to follow environmental law in granting permits for the Kennecott mine.
Pryor said that she’s sure that Muchmore’s appointment will have a “huge impact” on his wife’s work for Kennecott.
“It is very difficult for me to understand how the two can be separate … when his wife is such a key component of Kennecott PR programs.”
Pryor and the others involved in opposition to the Kennecott mine are sensitive to the power of political appointees to influence the outcome of environmental projects. Final approval for the Kennecott mine proposal was issued by a Granholm political appointee as the permitting agency was in the midst of restructuring. (According to a state official familiar with the process, the restructuring was largely directed by Bill Rustem, who chaired the committee charged with merging and downsizing the state departments of Environmental Quality and Natural Resources.)
Other environmental groups are sounding cautiously optimistic.
“We want to give him a chance and hope that some of the relationships with entities like Nestle and Kennecott are not going to effect the decision making,“ said Cyndi Roper, director of Michigan Clean Water Action. “We want to be sure that the public interest prevails over the private corporate interests that don’t have conservation at heart.
“The appearance so far is that those who are closest and advise him are looking at things through one lens,“ she said, “the corporate lens.”
Roper said that Clean Water Action and allies have been working hard to have a meeting with the governor-elect and his closest adviser, that meeting has not happened to date.
“Inclusion, open dialog, and accessibility from the outside is important,” she said. “Some of the concerns [about the corporate ties of his appointees] could be easily addressed if environmental groups are brought into conversations in a more formal way as soon as possible.”
Rustem in on the record stating that by the time he officially joins the Snyder team on Jan. 1 he will have left the firm he founded and sold his stock, and that former clients will have no special access to the governor. His firm opted not to respond to a request for details about his work for the companies.
Muchmore has not publicly discussed his wife’s ongoing PR work, and she did not return a call requesting a conversation about it.
“Dennis and his wife have always kept their business separate from their personal lives and that will continue to be the case just as it was when he was a lobbyist and MUCC director.“ Snyder spokesman Bill Nowling said via e-mail. “The state of Michigan has ethics and conflict of interest laws in place to protect and ensure the public trust, and the Snyder administration will follow those laws completely.”
He added that Rustem will also follow the state ethics statute.
It’s unclear how well this promise will address concerns about the corporate ties of Rustem and Muchmore.
Under the state ethics statute the penalty for passing confidential information or using one’s position in government for personal gain is demotion, dismissal and/or a $500 fine.
However, because Michigan does not have a law to require financial disclosure by members of the governor’s staff or other officials, it would be very difficult to prove a conflict of interest even if one existed.
Lynn Jondahl is chair of the State Ethics Board which is charged with investigating and issuing opinions on reports of unethical conduct. He also worked as part of Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s transition team.
Jondahl said that a similar situation involving lobbying activities by the spouse of a governor’s chief of staff came up during the Granholm administration.
When Gov. Granholm appointed lobbyist Rick Weiner chief of staff at the beginning of her administration, Michigan Republican Party Chair Betsy DeVos asked the Board of Ethics to investigate whether the State Ethics Act would be violated if the spouse of Rick Wiener continued to work as a lobbyist while Weiner served in the executive office.
“Ms. Devos, who expressed concerns that special interest groups may hire the spouse of the Governor’s COO as their lobbyists, questioned whether the Act prevents Mr. Weiner from serving as the COO while his spouse may potentially receive compensation as a lobbyist.“ Jondahl said.
In support of her request DeVos relied, in part, on a 1974 Ethics Board opinion that found the ‘the husband-wife relationship for ethical purposes, to be singular.’”
Ms. DeVos’ request for an investigation did not identify or claim that Mr. Wiener had taken unethical actions, he said, but rather raised hypothetical possibilities of a violation of the Ethics Act.
“The Board found that in the absence of allegations specifically identifying practices or habitual acts by Mr. Wiener, an investigation was unwarranted,” Jondahl said.
Though the state ethics law has not been interpreted to prohibit lobbying activities by a spouse of a member of the governor’s cabinet, Governor Snyder could choose to adopt a more comprehensive policy.
“Depending to the degree to which they feel it would be helpful to them and to the public they could make any kind of review and requirement apply, one of their own creation,” he said.
Snyder ran for office on a platform that included a strong commitment to protect Michigan’s natural resources. While the organizations that work toward that end are not crying foul yet, they do say that they intend to keep a close eye on these potential conflicts of interest to hold the new governor to that promise.