Dennis Lennox, a senior consultant at Sterling, Hoffman & Co., a Michigan-based media company that counts The Saginaw Valley Journal among its publications, was acquitted by a jury on two separate charges of embezzlement and violating Michigan’s Campaign Finance Act, last Monday in Cheboygan County on the northern-tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula. Mr. Lennox is the county’s Drain Commissioner.
“I have known Dennis for over a decade now and I’m honored to call him my friend,” Sterling, Hoffman & Co. chairman and chief executive Michael Westendorf said in a statement released shortly after Mr. Lennox’s trial concluded, “He has never been afraid to stand up for what’s right regardless of the political consequences. This probably makes him a lousy politician, but it makes him an outstanding public servant.”
Mr. Westendorf would not elaborate on Mr. Lennox’s salary or role at the company, saying that Sterling, Hoffman & Co. is a private firm.
While most cases involving campaign finance allegations are handled civilly through the Secretary of State’s office in Lansing, Mr. Lennox, 26, was charged by Cheboygan County’s prosecuting attorney, he says, in connection with his candidacy in the 2010 Republican primary election for the 105th District seat in the Michigan House of Representatives.
The Campaign Finance Act case was allowed to proceed locally, as the Michigan Supreme Court has yet to hear arguments on an appeal from the Meijer Corporation on whether local prosecutors have the jurisdiction to enforce the Campaign Finance Act. Meijer was previously investigated by authorities in Grand Traverse County over allegations of impropriety.
Cheboygan County’s prosecutor, Democrat Daryl Vizina, alleged Mr. Lennox included campaign material in county-funded drain commissioner mailings, though no witnesses were ever produced who claimed they received a suspect card.
Mr. Lennox was accused by Mr. Vizina of writing the address of a political Web site connected to his House campaign as a post script on an official drain commissioner Christmas card he sent to a former state legislator-turned-lobbyist, whose assistance Mr. Lennox was hoping to enlist in moving reform legislation that would have allowed Cheboygan County to abolish the drain commissioner’s office. The card in question was never delivered due to an incorrect address and was later returned by the U.S. Postal Service.
Cheboygan County administrator Mike Overton had mailroom officials seize the card, as well as other pieces of mail, without Mr. Lennox‘s consent or knowledge. The mailings were then opened without a search warrant and later turned over to police.
While prosecutors tried focusing on unsent mail, claiming they were evidence of widespread campaign finance violations, the case focused on the single card — valued at 44 cents in postage.
Mr. Lennox contended from the beginning that it was a mistake.
“I made a mistake and I acknowledged it time after time,” he said, “I reimbursed the county and the prosecutor still went forward with a clearly political prosecution in the middle of an election campaign, which greatly damaged my candidacy and ultimately played a factor in my loss in the Republican primary election.”
The one-day trial, held in 89th District Court, lasted approximately eight hours on Dec. 6. The jury deliberated for just under an hour before vindicating Mr. Lennox.
While nobody knows the jury’s rationale, Mr. Lennox believes common sense prevailed.
“The jury realized I wasn’t a criminal and no violation of the law occurred. I made a mistake that anybody could have made,” said Mr. Lennox. “It’s just unfortunate it took nearly a year for my name to be cleared — this could have been resolved a long time ago.”
In the trial, Mr. Lennox’s attorney, Daniel Hartman, argued that Mr. Lennox didn’t intentionally violate the law and the prosecutor’s failure to produce a single person who received an official drain commissioner Christmas card with political content was further proof of Mr. Lennox’s innocence.
Mr. Overton originally claimed in testimony and statements to police that citizen complaints prompted a request for a police investigation into Mr. Lennox‘s actions.
However, when confronted by Mr. Hartman on the witness stand, Mr. Overton changed his testimony and said Commissioner Linda Socha, the board’s chairman, received a card and called him about it. Mr. Hartman then showed Mr. Overton evidence from the prosecutor proving Ms. Socha never received a card and thus couldn’t have complained about receiving one. Mr. Overton again changed his testimony and claimed Ms. Socha was contacted by constituents, but the administrator couldn’t name anyone specific.
This inconsistency, among others, likely played a factor in the jury’s decision.
Mr. Lennox says he’s glad his ‘long nightmare’ is over and he’ll take extra steps to ensure nothing similar happens in the future.
“I’m putting this behind me and focusing on serving the people of Cheboygan County as their elected drain commissioner and voice in county government,” he said, brushing off follow-up questions on his political future.
The Next Chapter
Mr. Lennox is widely seen to have higher ambitions despite his loss in a six-way Republican primary that was ranked by Lansing political observers as the most competitive House primary this past year. He raised nearly $50,000 and earned diverse endorsements from senior leaders in Republican and conservative circles, including former Michigan Republican Party chairman Saul Anuzis, former Governor Christine Todd Whitman‘s moderate Republican Leadership Council, prominent social conservative Jay Sekulow and others; but the campaign couldn’t overcome the whispers about his Christmas cards.
Despite the loss and Mr. Vizina’s prosecution, Mr. Lennox traveled across Michigan in the general election as campaign manager and co-chairman of Yes on Proposal 1, which advocated passage of a ballot question asking whether a state constitutional convention should be convened in 2011.
“I believe it’s time to reinvent Michigan,” he said. “We need twenty-first century solutions and not the same tired, old ideas of the past.”
He’s by far the youngest countywide elected official in Michigan, coming into that role after defeating a two-term Democratic incumbent in the 2008 general election — a year in which few Republican challengers overcame the Obama tidal wave.
He took office as drain commissioner after campaigning on the platform of abolishing the office. This garnered national media coverage, including appearances on the Fox News Channel.
While the Board of Commissioners passed Mr. Lennox’s resolution abolishing the office and legislation he wrote was introduced in both the Michigan House and Senate, the office has yet to be abolished.
“I can’t control what Lansing does or doesn’t do,” said Mr. Lennox, a self-described policy wonk, who launched FireDennis.com, a Web site to highlight his reform crusade. “I fulfilled my promise and did everything I could, including running for the House of Representatives on the platform of reforming government at all levels.”
But firing himself — or as he prefers, abolishing his office — wasn’t his first high-profile media experience.
As a student at Central Michigan University, he drew similar attention in 2007 as campaign manager of Students Against Gary Peters. Mr. Peters, a former state legislator and political appointee in Governor Granholm’s administration, was running for Congress against then-Republican incumbent Joe Knollenberg in a swing metro Detroit constituency.
Mr. Lennox objected, saying Peters couldn’t be a non-partisan political science professor and campaign two hours away in one of the most contested congressional races of the 2008 campaign. Mr. Lennox has claimed his criticism of Peters wasn’t rooted in partisanship, but others disagreed. Some have labeled him ‘too partisan’.
“I plead guilty to being a Republican who supports Republicans,” he said, laughing, “Ninety percent of what I do — if not more — isn’t party political, but there is a difference between governing and my role in holding a party leadership post.”
‘Petersgate’, as Mr. Lennox calls it, heated up when a C.M.U. dean was caught on video smacking him after Mr. Lennox pulled out a camcorder to record her actions during a Freedom of Information Act request.
The exchange drew the attention of the Drudge Report, Fox News, and the Associated Press. It has been widely circulated with varying interpretations. Some say she should have been charged for assault and battery, others claim she just pushed the camera away. Regardless, Mr. Lennox’s trajectory was on the rise.
Rocking The Boat
With four new members of the Cheboygan County Board of Commissioners taking office on Jan. 1, Mr. Lennox hopes to focus on nuts-and-bolts work with the freshman majority — only three incumbents were re-elected — to pass meaningful reforms of county government.
“He has the experience to make a real difference,” said Steve Stockman, a former member of Congress, who met Mr. Lennox when he trained young conservatives at the suburban D.C.-based Leadership Institute and now calls him a friend. “I have worked with him on several occasions and have always been impressed.”
The outgoing majority blocked several of Mr. Lennox’s proposals over the past two years. Among them was a referendum asking electors whether they wanted to continue with an unelected county administrator or create an elected county executive. Currently, four counties — Bay, Macomb, Oakland and Wayne — have separated the executive functions of county government from the Board of Commissioners, though other counties have considered what many good-government advocates say is a necessary reform.
Mr. Lennox also wants the Board of Commissioners to establish an independent compensation commission, comprised of non-politicians, to establish the pay and benefits of county elected officials.
“It’s just wrong for politicians to vote themselves and their colleagues pay increases,” he said.
The often-controversial drain commissioner is also working with a civic organization to create a blue-ribbon panel of citizens to review all facets of Cheboygan County’s government and recommend cost savings.
The Board of Commissioners also rejected both of these proposals; though Mr. Lennox is hopeful the new members will get on board.
“There is a growing movement in Cheboygan County saying the status-quo clearly isn’t working when the county is ranked as the eleventh worst economically stressed county in the country,” said Mr. Lennox, noting the Associated Press ranking considered all 3,143 counties. “That was a wakeup call to many community leaders.”
Mr. Lennox chaired the Cheboygan County Republican Party’s campaign committee this past election, where he helped recruit new candidates. Some were successful, while other would-be local politicians lost by some 60 votes to long-time incumbents in the party primary.
A staunch Republican, who lost the party leadership contest after the 2008 election by one vote to a chairman who later quit, Mr. Lennox insists this is about keeping the party Republican.
“I believe in the Party, but incumbent officeholders can’t just use the Republican nomination to win an election,” he said. “If you won’t pay membership dues, attend meetings, get involved and most importantly support a conservative, Republican position on the most important issues facing your office, you don’t deserve re-nomination.”
All this has made Mr. Lennox a target by some who want to preserve their power bastions. Some of these people claim to be Republican, but Mr. Lennox points to many so-called local GOP leaders who publicly supported Democrat Gary McDowell over Republican Dan Benishek for Congress — the seat being vacated by retiring incumbent Bart Stupak.
Taking on these entrenched interests resulted in Mr. Vizina’s prosecution, according to Mr. Lennox.
“This was a political witch hunt from the beginning,” he said, “My opponents realized they had to beat me somehow and they couldn’t risk the chance of me winning the primary, so they decided to take advantage of their positions and abuse the system. It‘s unfortunate, but life and politics aren‘t always fair. Politics, unfortunately, is similar to making sausage — it’s a dirty process. At the end of the day though, the right thing normally happens no matter what the other side does.”
Mr. Vizina rejects the accusation that politics had anything to do with the prosecution.
Calling Mr. Lennox’s accusations of political bias “absolutely ridiculous,” Mr. Vizina told Lansing-based MIRS, “I know Mr. Lennox points at me (but) I don’t know if I’ve ever spoke with him.”
That’s a dubious statement, according to public records obtained from Mr. Lennox. He says Mr. Vizina has personally written him numerous times after the drain commissioner’s office requested legal opinions on official matters. Mr. Lennox says he could provide phone logs documenting telephone conversations, but doesn’t want to get into such a meaningless argument.
“I’ll let the jury’s verdict of not guilty on both counts end this chapter,” he said.
Conflict & Controversy
Crucified by local media, Mr. Lennox has had to use social-networking Web sites Facebook and Twitter to get his side of the story out, along with news media outside Cheboygan County.
The local newspaper of record, the Cheboygan Daily Tribune, has been soundly criticized by Mr. Lennox and his supporters for bias. A former editor was the campaign adviser for Greg MacMaster, who won the primary and general elections to become a member-elect of the Michigan House of Representatives. Several newspaper employees also publicly endorsed MacMaster and passed out his signs around town, Mr. Lennox claims.
“I don’t like looking back and pointing fingers, which is easy when you lose,” said Mr. Lennox. “But it’s clear there were very questionable stories and allegations printed over the last 18 months that bordered on fiction and in many cases the newspaper didn’t bother contacting me for my side.”
Gone unreported have been Mr. Lennox’s allegations that Mr. Vizina did not comply with the Campaign Finance Act. Mr. Lennox filed a complaint to state officials indicating that Mr. Vizina allegedly didn’t file a disclosure report since his election in 2008. If found in violation, Mr. Vizina would be subjected to a maximum fine of $500.
A Bright Future
“I suspect they will come after me again for something before 2012, when I’m eligible to seek re-election as drain commissioner,” said Mr. Lennox, “I didn’t get into public service to make friends. I did this because I want to serve. I want to make a difference. I want to improve my community and our great state of Michigan.”
With two years before the next election and six years before Mr. MacMaster is term-limited from the House of Representatives, one wonders if Mr. Lennox will remain in his current office.
“This regretful and unfortunate ordeal just ended, I haven’t given much thought to what I’ll do in 2012 — let alone for Christmas,” he said, denying as he did earlier that he has higher ambitions. “I took an oath to serve as drain commissioner and I’ll continue to fulfill that oath to the best of my ability.”
He wouldn’t get into specifics, but he emphasized that he supports Republicans.
“I run to win. I don’t run to lose, and I don‘t know who would,” he says rather bluntly.
Even his critics will admit that that you can’t count him out. Mr. Lennox has been criticized in the past and even written off, but he manages to pull off surprise wins, including his acquittal in a case that many claimed was a slam-dunk.
“I believe in public service,” said Mr. Lennox, who counts political leaders from former Governors George Romney and Bill Milliken to Presidents George W. Bush, who he interned for in 2004, and Ronald Reagan as political heroes. “That’s what great about the American republic: You can stand up, have your say and make a difference.”