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County commissioner’s Trump hat at meeting violated campaign finance law, state rules after complaint

MUSKEGON COUNTY, MI – Public officials who wear or display political campaign materials, such as T-shirts or hats, at meetings are violating the Michigan Campaign Finance Act (MCFA), according to a recent decision by the Secretary of State’s office.

The office came to that conclusion after a 16-month investigation into a complaint against a Republican Muskegon County Commissioner who wore a “Trump” hat to a commission meeting.

A letter issued Feb. 26 from the Bureau of Elections states that “the display of materials that expressly advocate for or against a candidate or ballot question by a public official engaged in the conduct of their public duties will be considered a violation of the MCFA.”

The complaint was filed in October 2019 against Commissioner Zach Lahring, alleging that he displayed and wore a “Trump 2020” hat to a Muskegon County Board of Commissioners meeting earlier that month.

Lahring’s response to the allegation included a claim that the display and wearing of the hat were protected political speech under the First Amendment, according to the letter.

He also claimed that because he didn’t intend to “assist” in the re-election of former President Donald Trump and that the hat was not displayed during an election year, that it was not a violation of Michigan law.

Related: County official who displayed, wore Trump hat during meetings focus of complaint

While the Bureau of Elections determined that there’s a “potential” that Lahring violated campaign finance law, it also said the letter sent to Lahring’s attorney Feb. 26 was a “formal warning” and served as “notice” to other public “officials and bodies.”

The letter explained that because Lahring spent money on the hat and then displayed it at a meeting he was paid to attend, he was in essence giving “contributions” to the Trump campaign.

The complaint against the Republican commissioner was filed by L. Kip Smith, who ran for, and lost, a seat on the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners in the August 2020 Democratic primary.

His complaint alleged that Lahring was using a public resource, the Muskegon County courthouse, to promote and endorse a federal candidate.

In his complaint, Smith provided as evidence two pictures of Lahring displaying his hat and a video recording of public comment at an Oct. 22, 2019, meeting of the Muskegon County board. He filed his complaint three days later.

The video shows Smith asking Lahring to remove his hat from view. Lahring says nothing in response but defiantly picks up the hat and places it on his head.

During that 2019 meeting, a heated debate over illegal immigration resulted in two members of the public being removed by sheriff’s officials.

Related: Two thrown out for making threats at illegal immigration debate in Muskegon

Smith told MLive the hat was “tinder to an all-ready flammable situation.”

“The commissioner’s escalation of the situation by placing the item upon his head and using my speaking time to stare me down, left me having no other option than to file a complaint,” Smith wrote in an email.

He said he was satisfied by the state’s finding, and he hoped that “everyone, regardless of political leaning will respect this decision.”

Lahring did not provide a comment when requested by MLive.

Lahring was first elected in 2018 to represent Muskegon County’s District 5, which covers Fruitport, Ravenna and Sullivan townships. He was re-elected to a second two-year term in November 2020.

Smith lost in the primary to Susie Hughes, the then chair of the county board who ended up being re-elected in November’s general election.

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