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House Dems hire new spokespeople after months of unusual arrangement with outside firm

Michigan House Democrats have made two new communications staff hires, House Democratic Leader Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, announced Monday.

The new hires come two weeks after MLive reported House Democrats used secret funding sources to pay an out-of-state firm with lobbying interests to run communications while leaving the key internal positions unfilled. The caucus’ last full-time secretary left that role on Oct. 2, 2020.

The House Democrats’ new press secretary is Andrea Brown-Harrison, a former television news producer who served as a communications advisor for the Senate Democratic Caucus. Zach Crim, a current employee within the House Democratic Caucus’ communications staff, was promoted to deputy communications director, per an news release from the caucus.

“House Democrats are focused on making sure our state gets through the pandemic and our economy recovers,” Lasinski said in an April 23 statement. “Andrea and Zach will be instrumental in getting our message across to the people of Michigan.”

Related: House Dems use secretive money to outsource communications to group with ties to special interests

Prior to Brown-Harrison and Crim’s hiring, Lasinksi contracted out communications services using an outside funding source with Byrum & Fisk Advocacy Communications, a firm led by former Michigan House Democratic Leader and current Michigan State University Board of Trustees Chair Dianne Byrum and Mark Fisk, a former political and communications director for the Michigan House Democratic Caucus.

Using an outside public relations firm in place of publicly funded communication directors was an unusual arrangement that some said raises ethical red flags.

Under the Michigan Legislature’s current structure, each of the four legislative caucuses — the majority and minority parties in both chambers — has a publicly-funded budget for a central communications staff that answers to caucus leadership.

Nearly a dozen sources with knowledge of Michigan legislative communications told MLive that while it’s common for lawmakers to work with public relations firms on their political campaigns or to consult on specific policy issues, the scope of Byrum & Fisk’s work with the House Democratic Caucus over the last several months was not the norm.

Under the prior arrangement, Stephanie Cepak — a former Gongwer News Service reporter who returned to Byrum & Fisk last year after working as a communications manager for Michigan State University’s Honors College — was serving as Lasinski’s de facto spokesperson, setting up news conferences regarding legislation and policy issues with Lasinski and other Democratic lawmakers, fielding questions from journalists and sending out caucus press releases. She currently lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, according to her Byrum & Fisk biography.

Cepak has also sent out news releases on behalf of other groups — some with pending interests in legislative issues — in recent months, including the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, the National Wildlife Federation, the Great Lakes Business Network, the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council and others.

It was also unclear how House Democrats had been paying for the contract, as it’s not coming from the House budget. In a response to a request from MLive, the Michigan House Business Office confirmed the funds did not come from the allotment available to the House Democratic Caucus to hire communications officials.

In a brief statement issued through Cepak earlier this month in response to several questions about the nature of and funding sources behind the contract, Lasinksi declined to say how much it cost or where the money was coming from — only that it wasn’t paid for with taxpayer dollars.

Brown-Harrison is a former TV news producer for WXYZ in Detroit. She also served as a Pittsfield Township trustee and parks commissioner. She ran for state House in 2012 in a race ultimately won by former state Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor.

Crim is a former legislative aid for state Sen. Glenn Anderson, D-Garden City, and managed several Lansing-area restaurants. ly being practiced,” Truscott said.

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