Former Duggan liaison heads dark money fund opposing Detroit community benefits ordinance

By Ryan Felton

October 12, 2016

A nonprofit headed by a former appointee of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is funding the opposition to Proposal A, a city ordinance going before voters next month that would require developers who receive tax breaks from Detroit to provide guarantees — jobs, housing, and more — for the community.

The organization, called Detroit Jobs First, is classified as a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit, and it isn’t legally obligated to disclose its donors — making it a so-called “dark money” fund. The way it’s organized is similar to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s controversial NERD Fund, which drew heavy criticism because it covered expenses for former Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.


This week, anti-Prop A ads funded by Detroit Jobs First began airing on broadcast television stations in Detroit, claiming the proposed ordinance would drive jobs out of the city.

The proposed ordinance would require developers of projects that cost $15 million or more, and seek public subsidies worth at least $300,000, to sign a legally-binding community benefits agreement, which could stipulate job requirements, new housing, or other economic opportunities. If a developer failed to uphold an agreement, the impacted host community could file a lawsuit to enforce the terms.

The ads coincided with a press conference on Tuesday held by prop A opponents at the site of the new Detroit Red Wings arena in downtown Detroit, one of the projects that spurred the drive two years ago by community benefits agreement supporters to enact an ordinance.

“Proposal A is awful,” said Mike Jackson, executive secretary and treasurer of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, at the press conference.

While opponents — mainly unions and business owners — have been vocal about their stance on Prop A, finding out who’s funding Detroit Jobs First and the group’s TV ads is a mystery.

State records show Detroit Jobs First was incorporated Sept. 8 “to operate exclusively for the promotion of civic action and social welfare by promoting the common good and general welfare of the residents, and visitors to the State of Michigan.”

“[Detroit Jobs First] is to be financed … [through] gifts, grants and contributions of funds and property, and the income generated therefrom,” according to the group’s articles of incorporation.

Records show the group was incorporated by W. Alan Wilk, a Lansing-based attorney with Dykema Gossett, who previously worked as the NERD Fund’s legal and compliance officer.

Reached by phone on Wednesday, Wilk declined to comment.

“I’m not authorized to speak to the press about this entity,” Wilk told Metro Times.

Records filed with the Federal Communications Commission show the group’s board of directors is comprised of three individuals:

  • Rev. James Holley, president of the board and former civic liaison for Mayor Duggan;
  • Mike Allen, vice president of the board and business manager for Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 1191; and
  • Lisa Canada, the board’s secretary who is the political and legislative director for the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters & Millwrights.

Messages were left for Allen and Canada seeking comment.

Holley’s bio says he has overseen several businesses and developments, including as president and CEO of Cognos Advertising Agency, previously the only full service ad agency in the city. He also hosts a local TV talk show called “Hello Detroit,” according to his LinkedIn page, and ran a food distributor called Country Preacher Foods.

When asked who’s fundraising or funding Detroit Jobs First, Holley directed questions to a spokesperson for the nonprofit, and said they’ll “tell you that.”

The spokeswoman, Sharon Banks, said the “funding and the filing is being done as we speak, and our attorneys are taking care of … all the financials, and that’s something that will be forthcoming.”

It’s unclear when the filings will be made available. Banks said the paperwork will be filed with the Internal Revenue Service. Federal law requires nonprofits to submit their filings to the IRS five months after their fiscal year has lapsed — and as much as a six-month extension for the deadline can be provided.

Asked who’s funding Detroit Jobs First, Banks didn’t answer and said the “filings and requirements for that 501(c)(4) is what’s being handled as we speak.”

She went on, “What the law requires is what we will do.”

The website for Detroit Jobs First said it’s being “paid for with regulated funds.”

The Michigan Attorney General’s office regulates nonprofits in the state, but a spokesperson said on Wednesday that typically only those with a designated 501(c)(3) status register with the office.

The website for Detroit Jobs First also doesn’t provide any clues to who’s funding the anti-Prop A campaign. The website’s domain — www.detroitjobsfirst.com — was registered through a company called Domains By Proxy, which keeps contact details private. The tagline for the company is: “Your identity is nobody’s business but ours.”

The Detroit Jobs First website was created Aug. 25, according to a WHOIS database, a directory for details on domains.