In Michigan, a one-man follow-the-money machine

Rich Robinson helps the state's journalists track political cash

MICHIGAN — Call him the perfect source.

Whether they work in newspapers, radio, or online news, Michigan political journalists rely on a single indefatigable man to sort out the increasingly byzantine relationship between money and politics. Rich Robinson is the one-man operation behind the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network. He crunches numbers and mines public inspection files at local television stations across the state. He does the legwork that time-strapped reporters don’t always have resources to do, particularly in a state that doesn’t make it easy to find information: Michigan gets a failing grade for transparency. Journalists seek Robinson out for both their reporting—some of which is better than others—and their behind-the-scenes education on who’s spending money in Michigan, and why.

“My land, he’s an incredible source!” exclaimed Lester Graham, who covers the investigations and accountability beat for Michigan Radio, when I reached out to him to ask about Robinson. Graham planned nine or 10 interviews with Robinson as part of his 2012 political coverage, and he seems likely to blow past that number. He has done eight already, including a strong piece on secretive spending on political ads for which Graham took a week-long road trip with Robinson, so that he could see what his source was seeing in the raw data.

Most of Graham’s segments with Robinson verge on eight minutes, which “on radio is really long,” he said. “The more I know this guy, the bigger fan I am,” Graham added. “He’s incredibly careful about his conclusions. He’s never given me any reason not to trust him.”

It’s a trust that Robinson had to earn. He’s driven by a desire to tell the public about the “investments” that big donors make in the political process, and from the time he started digging, “I realized that [journalists] have a readership that is much broader than mine, so it makes sense to work with them as much as possible.”

But it took time to build credibility with reporters—in part, he says, because it can be hard to believe the amount of political money that flows through untrackable channels. “But over time, (reporters) understood that this was for real.”

Today, he’s a fixture of campaign-finance and accountability coverage in Michigan. Earlier this month, the Detroit Free Press and relied on an MCFN report that showed that neither presidential campaign committee has spent a cent in Michigan since the Republican primary—but “independent groups” put up $6.4 million on “issue ads,” most denigrating President Obama. (The Free Press smartly caught that Crossroads USA announced a further $2.1 million ad-buy in Michigan just after the report was released.) The Detroit News called for tougher campaign finance laws in a recent editorial that cited Robinson’s numbers. An Associated Press story that appeared in Crain’s Detroit Business and on the websites of public radio stations WGVU and WNMU highlighted MCFN’s questioning of fundraising by lame-duck politicians. National journalists, too, are discovering Robinson as a solid source, as in a July 12 Mother Jones piece about a less-than-transparent group called the Michigan Alliance for Prosperity.

“Rich is by far one of the most helpful professional sources I’ve come across,” said Ian Kullgren, a young reporter with the Kalamazoo Gazette and MLive who has been drawing on Robinson’s expertise for about a year, including on a story about anonymous donors paying residents to gather signatures for ballot initiatives. Robinson showed Kullgren how to navigate certain government sites and access the documents he wanted.

“He knows more about campaign finance than anyone I know,” added Kullgren. “I use him both as an on-the-record source, but he’s also a great source to just call up and say, ‘Here’s what I found, and what this other source said: what do you think? Am I barking up the wrong tree? Am I missing something?’ ”

Robinson first got involved in campaign finance when, he said, he started trying “to get my arms around what happened” with the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore ruling. He became executive director of MCFN, which then existed “in a nascent state,” in 2001. He has since followed the ways in which a series of new laws and Supreme Court decisions—not just Citizens United, but also the 2007 Wisconsin Right to Life case—paved the way for huge amounts of anonymous donations to influence the information that reaches voters during a campaign.

The Wisconsin case plays a central role in Robinson’s main obsession—the rise of undisclosed political cash. The 5-4 decision in that case loosened restrictions on ads that do not specifically call for a vote for or against a particular candidate. Today, an armada of non-profit entities known as 501(c)(4) groups, or “social welfare” organizations—which don’t have to disclose their donors—exist to produce these “issue ads,” which factchecking groups find to be the most misleading political ads on the air. In the 2010 cycle, these nonprofits outspent super PACs. (The nonprofit groups also channel funds to the super PACs, which do have to disclose their donors.) This cycle, meanwhile, a July 7 New York Times feature detailed the trend of unreported corporate gifts to nonprofit groups “dedicated to shaping public policy on the state and national levels.” Just a day earlier, Robinson had released his own findings about how 501(c)(4) groups and their “dark money” have been the dominant players in Michigan this spring and summer.

(As one would expect, Robinson is forthcoming about MCFN’s finances. It is supported by the Joyce Foundation of Chicago, which funds quality-of-life initiatives in Great Lakes states. “Beyond that,” Robinson said, “I’ve never gotten an individual contribution more than $2,000.”)

Even the perfect source has limits, of course. Robinson is one guy: as competent and driven as he is, no single person can shoulder all the responsibility for deciphering the shrouded money-and-politics link in Michigan. But while journalists like Graham and Kullgren try to learn from Robinson to do their own digging and double-checking, Robinson can be used as a sort of outsourced reporter, with MCFN’s press releases all but reprinted, as in this post from The Windsor Star, across the river from Detroit in Ontario. In a ten-paragraph story, the Star cites MCFN or Robinson in eight of them. No other source is referenced in the piece.

And while Robinson relies on journalists to get the word out, commercial competition among news outlets can actually limit transparency, he suggested. He often digs up his data on ad spending from the public inspection files at local TV stations. (When I looked at some of those files myself, I frequently saw Robinson’s name on station sign-in logs.) But many of those stations oppose a new FCC rule that will require the files to be posted online, saying it will give rivals easy access to their ad rates.

Robinson said he understands the broadcasters’ resistance—but it is ultimately beside the point. The public “needs to know how much is spent, not how much a spot costs,” he said. “They want a sense of the big picture—what’s spent and who’s spending it. People are frustrated with an ad that will tell them it’s paid for by the ‘Committee for God and Country,’ but won’t really tell you who that is.”

As for how other journalists might carry the beat forward, Robinson suggested a data cooperative that might ease the burden on individual reporters or outlets to dig up their own numbers. MLive, a statewide site that partners with local newspapers, seems to be “fairly well equipped to take it on, because it’s so widely spread out, at least around the Lower Peninsula,” he said. But, “journalists are competitive. It’s hard to say that a journalist in the Grand Rapids market should be in a co-op with a journalist in the Detroit market.”

However it happens, the need for this perfect source to multiply—for more illumination on the flow of money into Michigan, and national, politics—remains pressing. “I can hardly recall a time when a citizen said they didn’t care, they didn’t need to know,” said Robinson. “But legislators are more accountable to funders who don’t want transparency. That’s the officeholder’s dilemma right now: the pull between citizens and anonymous funders. Right now, the funders are winning.”

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.