- Robert "Nix" Nixon
In 2015, when his presidency was just a fever dream, then-candidate Donald Trump pointed out, astutely, that big business buys off politicians. Trump would know. He openly admitted that he did it.
"As a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do," Trump told The Wall Street Journal last year. "As a businessman, I need that."
Later, on stage at the first debate of the primaries, Trump admitted that it was wrong but he did it anyway.
"I will tell you that our system is broken..." he said. "I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me."
Quicken Loans head honcho Dan Gilbert pretty much said a similar thing in a statement released ahead of an appearance with Ivanka Trump in 2017, though his version was scrubbed clean with the antiseptic touch of a public relations wing.
"Our interests are in the policies at the federal level, and not the politics surrounding the elections," Gilbert said. "We have often supported both political parties in the same election so that we have the ability to impact positive change, regardless of who occupies the offices."
Indeed, Gilbert gave $75,000 for a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton's doomed presidential campaign. But Quicken Loans also donated $750,000 to Trump's record-breaking $107 million inauguration committee. (The committee is being investigated by federal prosecutors for potential money laundering, among other things.)
Did Gilbert's gift to Trump pay off? It would appear so. ProPublica dropped a bombshell report on Thursday that found that three swaths of downtown Detroit were granted an opportunity zone tax break after Gilbert made the donation. The tax break is odd because it was intended for impoverished communities — and as anyone who has ever visited Detroit knows, downtown Detroit, where Gilbert has amassed nearly 100 buildings, is the highest concentration of wealth in Detroit.
In fact, one of the tracts should have been deemed ineligible, as it has a median income that is 1.5 times higher than the eligibility requirements allow; it was mysteriously added to the list of eligible tracts after a Michigan economic development official asked a colleague to contact Quicken Loans about opportunity zones.
"They worked with the White House on it and want to be sure we are coordinated," the official wrote in an email with the subject line "Quicken."
Weeks later, former Gov. Rick Snyder picked all three tracts for the program.
Furthermore, the opportunity zone tax breaks are meant to encourage new development, but Gilbert already had several massive projects in those zones in the works, including his Hudson's site skyscraper, which is planned to be the tallest building in Michigan. The project also requested tax dollars originally intended for Detroit's struggling schools. And though Gilbert's previously started projects may ineligible for the tax breaks, he still stands to gain, as ProPublica notes that property values tend to rise in opportunity zones.
As ProPublica reports, "the program has been widely criticized as a giveaway to the rich that will not bring the promised revitalization in needy areas. There is no mechanism to track the program’s results, from how much new investment comes to the zones to how many jobs it creates."
The White House, Treasury Department, Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Snyder, and Quicken Loans all reportedly declined to comment, though Jared Fleisher, Quicken Loans vice president of government affairs, said the company "did not exercise any inappropriate influence."
Maybe Trump was right, then: This is just how the game gets played.
You can read the full ProPublica report here.
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