Pfizer confirms $1,000 donation (which was later returned) to Mich. Gov. Rick Snyder’s controversial NERD Fund
This is how hard it can be to find out which companies are donating to politicians in Michigan.
Metro Times has confirmed a second corporate donor who backed Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s controversial New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify (NERD) Fund.
In 2013, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. donated $1,000 to the governor’s nonprofit. That voluntary admission was lodged deep in a company document detailing Pfizer’s political contributions last year — and not the records of Snyder’s nonprofit, as it’s not legally required to disclose its donors.
Pfizer’s disclosure makes it only the second publicly revealed donor of the NERD Fund. Last fall, Snyder said he would dissolve the fund just weeks after the Center for Public Integrity reported CVS Caremark Corp. had donated $1,000 in March of 2012. A spokesman for Pfizer says the money was eventually returned.
“Our records indicate that we received a full refund for our $1,000 contribution as the donation was processed after the Fund had been disbanded,” Sharon Castillo, of Pfizer, tells Metro Times in an email.
The nonprofit drew heavy criticism for not disclosing donors because it covered some of Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s housing and travel costs, as well as footing the salary of Rich Baird, an old friend and aide of Snyder’s who played a role in Orr’s appointment. After announcing the dissolution of the fund, the governor’s office said Baird would join the state payroll as an appointed “transformation manager” with a $140,000-a-year salary.
In spite of the refund to Pfizer, the NERD Fund has raised close $2 million, says Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which still raises disturbing questions about transparency in government.
“The gesture of sending back $1,000 is small compared to that; it’s not the $1,000, it’s the knowledge of who’s putting the real money into this thing,” Robinson tells Metro Times.
Snyder spokesperson Sara Wurfel says the fund hasn’t taken in or paid out money since October of last year.
“For all intents and purposes, it absolutely is closed — thought it can’t be, technically, 100% dissolved until financials and last tax returns are completed for IRS/tax purposes,” Wurfel says in an email to Metro Times. “That’s in process now.”
Wurfel also says the governor has a standing policy to not accept money from political action committees.
“The check was never cashed, and simply returned due to that fact,” she says.
Pfizer states in the company document its PAC is nodnpartisan and that “Pfizer PAC is committed to support candidates from both political parties who share Pfizer’s vision and values for health care.” According to records filed with the Federal Elections Commission, Pfizer’s PAC donated $1,011,950 in 2013 to federal candidates and other political committees. The company didn’t contribute to the NERD Fund in 2011 and 2012, according to Pfizer documents.
As a 501(c)(4) “civic action and social welfare” nonprofit, the NERD Fund could accept unlimited corporate donations and was not legally obligated to disclose its donors. The funds, though, are commonly used by politicians and organizations.
After the Center for Public Integrity’s report, scrutiny of Snyder’s fund intensified when Rep. Thomas Stallworth III (D-Detroit) pointed out that CVS Caremark received a $60 million “no-bid” contract from Orr. The city contract, which actually had been approved in a competitive bid process in 2012 by then-Mayor Dave Bing and Detroit City Council, was later modified after Orr’s appointment, Ann Arbor-based Eclectablog originally reported.
The problem Stallworth and others had with the deal was that a local competitor, Grosse Pointe Park-based ScriptGuideRX, claimed it could save Detroit $12 million if it ripped up the CVS contract, according to the Lansing-based MIRS News service.
Harvey Day, the president of Grosse Pointe Park-based ScriptGuide, told MIRS he was “100 percent confident” the $12 million in savings he offered the city was “real.”
Orr’s spokesman Bill Nowling fired back in the Nov. 1 article, saying Day “promised big savings, but couldn’t back it up. Period.”
“We already got a contract in place,” Nowling told MIRS. “We are not going to tear it up just because someone ‘says’ they can save more. They have to be able to demonstrate it.”
In 2012, the NERD fund raised $368,000, according to filings with the Internal Revenue Service. The previous year, it raised $1.31 million. Snyder’s administration has previously defended the fund as a tool to offset the costs of some government expenses.
It’s unclear if the fund has officially been dissolved yet, which the Freep previously reported can’t take place until after its 2013 IRS report is filed. Nonprofits are required to file four-and-a-half months after the close of the fiscal year — which, in the NERD Fund’s case, would be May 15, as it uses the calendar year. It can request two 90-day extensions, meaning the fund’s most recent tax record may not be filed until November.
In the end, says Robinson, “we’re talking close to $2 million” in anonymous donations, “which is quite a breach of confidence with the people of the state … and that really is the big story.”
[Update June 4, 2014, 12:30 p.m. -- An earlier version of this story did not include comments from the governor's office]