Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert's Rock Family of Companies is on the defensive after ProPublica published a bombshell investigation that found swaths of downtown Detroit, a high concentration of wealth where Gilbert owns dozens of buildings, got an "opportunity zone" tax break meant to help spur development in impoverished areas after it donated to President Donald Trump.
Jared Fleisher, the vice president of government affairs and economic development for the Rock Family of Companies, penned an op-ed on cleveland.com calling the story "simply not true."
"I stake my name, my reputation and the reputation of my organization on that," he wrote.
Hours after the story was published, the organization also published a standalone website meant to debunk the ProPublica story, oppzonefacts.com, which accuses ProPublica of pursuing a "biased narrative" and touts the organization's financial investments in Detroit.
"First, opportunity zones were never a legislative priority for our company," Fleisher writes. "Lobbying disclosure records show no lobbying on this issue before the law was passed. The organization that led the advocacy effort, the Economic Innovation Group, will tell you that we were not involved in any meaningful way, shape or form. Indeed, email records show that we didn’t even know the program was passed into law until many days after the fact — hardly what you would expect from supposed leaders of the effort."
Fleisher's claim that it was never a legislative priority is interesting, because Gilbert was involved in the creation of opportunity zones from early in their conception. As ProPublica reports, in 2015, Gilbert joined the Economic Innovation Group think tank, where the idea for opportunity zones originated.
One issue seems to be the meaning of the word "lobbying." In an interview with Forbes published after ProPublica's story, Fleisher admits a colleague had been communicating with the White House's National Economic Council before opportunity zones were enacted in December 2017. According to Fleisher, the topic of opportunity zones came up for two "insignificant and inconsequential" minutes and the organization otherwise had "zero contact with the treasury department. Zero advocacy. Zero influence, nothing."
ProPublica says it stands by its story.
"The facts in our story remain unchallenged," Minhee Cho, ProPublica's director of public relations, says in a statement. "It is based on documents that we published and that people can read for themselves, including a letter from Bedrock [Gilbert’s company] directly lobbying the Trump Administration on opportunity zones."
Cho is referring to a letter from Bedrock CEO Bill Emerson sent July, 1 2019, to the Internal Revenue Service, which requests detailed changes and clarifications to the opportunity zone rules. The letter is not mentioned in Fleisher's op-ed or the oppzonefacts.com website.
Fleisher also says many of Gilbert's properties and developments were already in the works before the opportunity zones were designated, which could make them ineligible for the tax benefits. However, as ProPublica points out, Gilbert would still stand to benefit, as property values tend to rise inside of opportunity zones.
One of the tracts in downtown Detroit was initially deemed ineligible for the opportunity zone designation because it has a higher median income than the rules allowed. ProPublica found it was added to the list of eligible tracts in 2018 after a Michigan economic development official sent an email to a colleague to call Fleisher about opportunity zones, saying, "[Rock Family of Companies] worked with the White House on it and want to be sure we are coordinated."
Fleisher admits the Rock Family of Companies was consulted about the tract, confirming the company had heavy influence on the creation of opportunity zones on both the city and state level.
"ProPublica’s documents show the city of Detroit consulting with us — along with a number of outside experts — to determine which areas were eligible before the federal government released the lists," Fleisher writes. "We had a different analysis for this tract, because this is incredibly complex stuff. The U.S. Treasury Department ultimately confirmed that analysis when it put out the final lists. That is truly it, nothing more."
While it may indeed be "incredibly complex stuff," it is clear that Gilbert and the Rock Family of Companies had a high level of access following the organization's $750,000 donation to Trump's inaugural committee, with Gilbert even reportedly being invited to watch the 2018 midterm results with Trump at the White House.
In a statement released before an appearance with Ivanka Trump, Gilbert said the Rock Family of Companies "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."
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