Left: Howard Spence, an Eaton County Commissioner representing Delta Township was the victim of a potentially bias motivated larceny and was subsequently outed by unknown persons working in conjunction with Vince Malcangi of Nashville, Michigan. Center: Vince Malcangi is a former GOP candidate for the Eaton County Commissioner as well as the Treasurer for the SFS PAC which has paid for Facebook ads for Johnsen. He is the only other person to have sought the police report from Eaton County officials through FOIA. Right: Gina Johnsen, the GOP challenger to Howard Spence. She's tied to the man who requested the police report through his PAC and funding of advertisements supporting her.

Anti-LGBTQ Smear Campaign Targets Eaton County Commissioner

By Todd Heywood

Earlier this year, a Democratic Eaton County Commissioner was the victim of what experts call a "probable" anti-gay bias motivated crime. However, his constituents are learning about it from an anonymous website that political experts have called a "vile political smear." Between The Lines has discovered these smears may be tied to a GOP opponent.

Howard Spence, the commissioner, met a man through a Craigslist advertisement in February. He brought the man back to his home, and the man absconded with his wallet and 2007 Toyota Camry.

But the release of the information on an anonymous website is causing political issues for Spence.

"If it were not for his own actions that allowed these events to happen by choosing to respond to a complete stranger on Craigslist, advertising for gay sex, Commissioner Spence would not have been a victim," an anonymous person wrote on a website with an .is domain.

The political hit piece accuses him of being "irresponsible" and putting "himself in a position of being a possible target for blackmail," as well as jeopardizing "not only his own safety but any sensitive information."

The website accuses Spence of failing to cooperate with law enforcement during the investigation because he failed to identify Bernard Brand Smith in a photo lineup.

"After viewing a photo line-up of individuals including the suspect, Howard Spence could not make a positive identification of him to the ECSD," the anonymous work claims. "We believe Commissioner Spence chose not to ID the suspect so as not to cause further actions by the Eaton County Prosecuting Attorney's Office that would have exposed this incident publicly, perhaps in a courtroom trial setting."

However, the police report reveals he felt the image of Smith in the lineup was the one that "looked more like" the other photo images. The report also reveals the Spence provided investigators with a telephone number of the suspect -- a number which ultimately resulted in Smith's arrest.

Citing the ongoing criminal prosecution of Smith in Eaton County Circuit Court, Spence declined to comment on the specifics of the case other than to say he had nothing to be ashamed of. Smith, who was charged with the crimes against Spence, has pleaded guilty to unauthorized driving away of an automobile, as well as being a fourth habitual criminal in exchange for having a larceny from a building charge dismissed. He'll be sentenced Oct. 20.

The website also contains an image of the initial police narrative of the incident. It is the only piece of the report shared on the website.

The full police report, with supporting information, is well over 40 pages in length. It includes cell phone records, Facebook communications, the original Craigslist advertisement and information regarding attempts to use Spence's credit cards and the ultimate discovery of his car in Detroit.

According to Eaton County officials, the only person to have requested the report was Vince Malcangi of Nashville, Michigan. Malcangi last week denied knowledge of the website attacking Spence. Asked if he had provided the police reports to others who may have created the website, Malcangi responded, "Not to my knowledge."

He then claimed that other political operatives in the county could have obtained the report through back channels. He declined to identify any of these operatives, saying only, "You know how politics work."

But Malcangi, who failed in a bid to unseat another Republican Eaton County Commissioner in the August primary, has political and financial ties to Spence's GOP opponent, Gina Johnsen.

Campaign Finance disclosure documents available at the Eaton County Clerk's Office show Malcangi started a political action committee called SFS last year. He serves as the committee's treasurer, and provided $400 of the group's $525 in funds. Records also show the committee spent $300 in Facebook advertising to promote Johnsen's campaign.

Johnsen did not return repeated phone calls or an email seeking comment on this situation.

However, the anti-gay tenor of the attack may fit well with her political views. Her Facebook page shows she works for a host of anti-abortion groups, as well as serves as the strategic outreach director for Salt and Light Global ministries. That agency has made its presence known in the recent past in fighting the adoption of a comprehensive human rights ordinance in Delta Township, a Lansing suburb located in Eaton County.

Salt and Light Global leaders assailed the township leadership not to pass the law in 2013. They argued it would infringe on their religious freedom. One of those leaders, David Kallman, is well known as an advocate against LGBT equality. In 2000 and 2001 he represented the American Family Association in a challenge of the Jackson Public Schools and its decision to allow a Gay Straight Alliance to form. Kallman, incorrectly, claimed the school did not allow for the formation of Bible clubs. He had to retract that claim. More recently he sued Planet Fitness over its policy to allow transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. That case was tossed out of a Bay County court.

Political consultant Joe DiSano, who is no stranger to gloves off political street brawling, said he doesn't buy Malcangi's denials.

"It's absolute malarkey," he said of the denial. "It was absolutely a complete screw job by and for the GOP candidate."

He called the website a "sleazy attempt to turn the public against a gay friendly candidate."

"Howard Spence is a victim here," DiSano said. "He doesn't need to be one politically."

Despite the blatant homophobia of the attack, DiSano said he doesn't think it will have much impact on the campaign.

Tim Retzloff, assistant professor -- fixed term in the Department of History & Center for Gender in Global Context at Michigan State University -- said anti-gay smears like this have a long history in American politics.

"Rumor, innuendo and outing have long featured in Michigan elections as well, from flyers attacking Gary Kapanowski as a 'faggot' when he ran to become shop chairman of UAW Local 212 in 1972 to a 'Take a Hike Dyke' mass mailing aimed at out lesbian Trish Brown in her re-election campaign for the Wayne-Westland School Board in 1997," Retzloff said. "Indeed, just last year Ken Siver endured homophobic vandalism in his bid to become Southfield's first openly gay mayor. Aside from hateful language, what many of these smear campaigns have had in common is their anonymity. That many who attack LGBTQ candidates tend to hide their identities suggests a sense of wrongdoing. Some might consider it cowardice."

Spence does not identify as gay, but has said he's gay/bi friendly.

Michael Rogers, a national expert on outing LGBTQ politicians who are in the closet, said Spence did not fit the criteria he uses in determining who to target and why.

For him, a politician or political operative's sexual orientation is only a political issue if that person is actively working against LGBT equality. "Then the reporting is about hypocrisy," he said.

Spence testified in favor of the 2013 Delta Township comprehensive human rights ordinance.

Eaton County politicians from both the GOP and the Democratic Party are crying foul over the website.

"No one who is the victim of a crime -- whether it's a hate crime or not -- should have that held against them," said state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge. "This is underhanded and unacceptable campaign tactics."

Ken Fletcher, a Democrat and the Delta Township Supervisor, called the attack website "disappointing."

"A person's sexuality is theirs to disclose when and if they are ready," said Emily Dievendorf, interim president of the Lansing Association for Human Rights. "The individual who outed this dedicated public servant did so with the intention of attacking his credibility and destroying his career. But our credibility has nothing to do with our sexuality, how responsible we are has nothing to do with whether we use a dating site, and a victim is a victim and without blame for the violence directed at them regardless of whether you approve of who they are."

Dievendorf also took issue with the website author claiming Spence had been "irresponsible."

"Due to the stigma against LGBTQ people, we have found online dating and hookup sites to be one of few places we can meet potential partners without the possible threat of violence and public shaming should our interest not be reciprocated," she said. "In this case, the only reason finding a partner online is being touted as 'irresponsible' is because of the victim's sexuality. We all should be able to expect safety when we meet up with a friend or a date. Regardless of our sexuality, or the way we planned to spend time with our friend, we are victims and free of blame when our safety is threatened."


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