"He screwed up pretty massively," says Alex Yerkey.
From the January, 2017 issue
Yerkey is the treasurer of the Ann Arbor Democratic Party. He's talking about Mike Henry, the city party's charismatic, controversial chair.
In an October interview, Henry said that he was invited to co-chair the party in 2010 and became sole chair in 2012. It was divided then, he says, and still is: "There are five different factions of the local party, and they range from the anarchist to Tea Party."
Member Susan Baskett says she discovered the Ann Arbor Dems during her first school board campaign in 2003, but "what really got me more engaged is Mike's enthusiasm and his ability to engage others." The gregarious party chair also did more fundraising. "When I first started we did the Labor Day picnic," he said. "Since I've been chair we've grown. The party likes to party." There's now a spring chili cook-off, a Fourth of July barbecue, and a winter gala as well. Yerkey says that with "a couple extra events related to the presidential election," the AADP raised nearly $20,000 in 2015 and 2016.
After 2014, however, Henry no longer had direct access to those funds. "He made cash withdrawals to pay vendors but with no receipts to back them up," Yerkey explains. "We decided he was not someone who should be handling money, and rules were passed that said the chair is not to handle money."
Henry "believes he can make it work even on the fly, and sometimes he can, and that's great for some things," the treasurer says. "But for things like finances, where you need to be detail oriented and that can't and shouldn't be done on the fly, it's a net negative."
Henry's improvisational style got him in trouble again this past summer, when he neglected to get word out in a timely way about a planned June forum for candidates in August's Democratic primary. "I had heard from a couple of candidates that they had not received an invitation to participate in
the forum," emails councilmember Jack Eaton. "This is not unusual. Last year, a few candidates did not receive any invitation."
Diane Giannola, one of two Democrats running against Ward Four incumbent Graydon Krapohl, thought she saw political favoritism at work. "I tried to find out about it because I was not contacted," she said in a phone call last summer. "I called Mike, and he screamed at me that he didn't know!"
Henry recalled it differently: "I called her about the candidate forum [because] people had scheduling issues, and she went on this tirade about people stabbing her in the back!"
"They're an illegitimate group," Giannola said at the time. They're not "an official branch of the Democratic Party."
"There's no official relationship," Henry agreed. "The county party is an official arm of the Democratic Party. We are not." Though it sometimes makes endorsements, he said its primary purpose is educational.
Those weren't Henry's only troubles. When county commissioner Conan Smith resigned his seat on the board last fall, Henry applied to take his place-then quickly withdrew when he discovered he didn't live in Smith's district.
Henry had recently moved, and county commissioner Andy LaBarre calls it "a simple mistake." But then onetime mayoral candidate Pat Lesko emailed LaBarre questioning many details of Henry's resume. When the Observer asked Henry about that in October, he said that he was too busy with the election to answer questions. By mid-December, he still hadn't responded.
By then, Yerkey had uncovered a much more serious problem: last summer, Henry wrote two unauthorized checks totaling $3,800.
"He is not given a checkbook for a reason," Yerkey says. "However he was an authorized signer on the account, and he got emergency checks from the credit union."
Yerkey says Henry used the money to make "an unauthorized loan to a nonprofit called the Citizens Education Law Clinic. Its mission was to bring people with legal expertise to poorer places in Michigan. The director was Mike Henry."
As Yerkey understands it, "There was a paid internship program that started in the clinic, and at the time Mike did not have the money to cover it, and he thought it was a short-term thing and he could raise the money to replace it before it was missed."
He couldn't. At the party's December meeting, "during the financial report it was revealed that Mike had difficulties with party funds," Eaton says. "He apologized and said he'd repay. Then Mike announced he's not going to run again" for party chair.
"I don't know why he thought it was a good idea," Yerkey says with a sigh. "I guess he felt personally responsible, and this was a pot of cash for a bridge loan. I can understand the argument he would make. The organization's mission is aligned with Ann Arbor Dems'. But I don't agree that we should be a loaning organization."
By mid December, Henry had repaid $1,400. "He's still committed to repaying all of it," Yerkey says. "It's a lot of money and tough to fundraise in this situation, but he says if he can't fundraise it, he'll personally repay it by the end of the year."
"It's important to understand the reasons that this was done," Yerkey says of the misappropriation. "Mike wanted to make a difference, and that's a noble goal, but with incredibly bad execution."
Yerkey and the rest of the party leadership have also chosen not to stand for reelection. Their successors will be elected in January.
As the Observer went to press, Baskett was running unopposed for chair. She's sorry Henry's tenure is ending this way, but says his financial mismanagement "is unforgivable."
The new leaders "will review the by-laws and protocols in place, and I will not go around the protocols-especially in terms of finances" Baskett vows. "I don't see a need to have access to the checkbook!"
[Originally published in January, 2017.]
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