A look into the business practices of Indiana's Republican Senate candidate Mike Braun

Mike Braun, the Indiana GOP Senate candidate, celebrates his victory with President Donald Trump on May 10, 2018.
Mike Braun, the Indiana GOP Senate candidate, celebrates his victory with President Donald Trump on May 10, 2018.

In the wake of Mike Braun’s victory as the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Indiana, Democratic Super PAC American Bridge attacked his record on Twitter.

"Mike Braun, the Republican nominee for Senate in Indiana, is everything that's wrong with politics," American Bridge tweeted. The tweet was accompanied by an image of Mike Braun that read, "Meet Mike Braun, Indiana’s GOP Senate nominee."

Three bullet points followed:

  • "His trucking company and distribution companies ‘overworked and underpaid employees.’ "

  • "Imported goods from Mexico and China while pretending to care about American jobs."

  • "Used his state legislature seat to enrich himself and his companies."

The campaign provided somewhat mixed evidence for the claims. Because of the multiple-pronged attack, we won’t place this ad on the Truth-O-Meter.

"His trucking company and distribution companies ‘overworked and underpaid employees’ "

Braun is the CEO and owner of Meyer Distributing, an auto parts distribution company, and Meyer Logistics, a trucking company, based in Jasper, Ind.

The U.S. Labor Department found Meyer Distributing violated the Fair Labor Standards Act 26 times. The violations were related to unpaid overtime work for 25 employees between December 2008 and December 2010. Meyer Distributing had to pay $39,402 in back wages. The company settled one lawsuit with a fired employee in 2009 related to the same issue.

The Labor Department found one violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act between April 2013 and April 2015.

The Federal Transportation Department cited Meyer Distributing 41 times for work time logging violations since September 2015, according to a search by the Associated Press.

Barney Keller, a consultant to the Braun campaign, countered that these complaints give an incomplete picture of a company that has employed thousands of employees over the past 35 years. Braun employs over 850 employees across 39 states today.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University, dismissed that defense.

"The larger the company, the more unforgivable it is that they didn’t pay their workers," Bronfenbrenner said. "They should have a good computer system that makes it so that everyone gets their pay."

"Imported goods from Mexico and China while pretending to care about American jobs."

The connection between importing goods and caring about American jobs is not as direct as American Bridge makes it sound. And the same critique could be directed at Braun’s Democratic opponent, incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly

Import Genius, a company that tracks maritime shipments that land in U.S. ports, found 14 imports to Meyer Distributing from China dating back to 2012. They were unable to find any Mexican imports, which usually come via land or air. (Mexico does not release information for land or air shipments linked to specific companies.)

Braun’s campaign countered that 95 percent of Meyer’s suppliers are American companies. At least forty of 733 companies are headquartered outside the United States. We found one Mexican-owned company on the list.

But that wasn’t really American Bridge’s point. Many of the American companies whose products Meyer Distributing delivers sell products made in other countries, including Mexico and China.

Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, called the accusation bizarre.

Alden estimated that 40 percent of auto parts needed to build a car come from outside the United States. If that supply is cut off, the cost of production skyrockets, or the car simply cannot be made, at the inevitable cost of American jobs.

"What would his customers say if he couldn’t supply a part because it was made in Mexico and not the United States?" Alden asked. "Would they name him a champion of American jobs?"

American Bridge pointed out that Braun also owns a home decor store, Finishing Touches, that sold a variety of products manufactured in China. These included, among a few others, Vera Bradley bags, Yeti coolers, and Corkcicle tumblers. Vera Bradley shut down a factory in New Haven, Ind., while expanding operations in Fort Wayne in 2013.

The issue is of particular importance to Indiana, because it’s home to a large Carrier factory, the HVAC manufacturer that made headlines during the 2016 campaign when they announced they would be moving to Mexico and cutting 1,400 jobs in Indiana. (Trump struck a deal that preserved about half of those.)

As a state legislator, Braun voted against an amendment that allowed local governments to take back property tax incentives from companies that relocate outside Indiana.

Braun rebutted with Donnelly’s own record. Donnelly profited from a family arts and crafts business that relied on cheap Mexican labor to produce dye for ink pads. Import Genius recorded 35 import shipments from China for the company between 2008 and 2018. Panjiva, a similar import tracking company, found 31 shipment imports since 2011.

Domila McFarlane, a manager at Panjiva, noted the company had likely received further shipments by air, but U.S. data only looks at maritime shipments.

Donnelly sold his stocks in the company following the AP report on ties to Mexico in July 2017.

"Used his state legislature seat to enrich himself and his companies."

This charge has merit, but Braun didn’t break any rules.

Braun has been a state representative since January 2014, and he owns more than 5,000 acres of timber valued above $5 million. While he does not harvest timber himself, he sells his trees to loggers. His timber land yields tens of thousands of dollars in income each year.

American Bridge pointed to four pieces of legislation Braun co-sponsored or voted for as a state legislator. The first was a vote against regulating the sale of timber from private property. The bill passed.

Braun co-authored legislation giving truck drivers transporting wood more leeway. Drivers would be allowed to unwittingly surpass the weight limit by up to 10 percent when transporting wood products like logs, sawdust, shavings and wood chips, as is allowed with wheat, corn and beans. The bill was signed into law.

Braun co-authored two pieces of unsuccessful logging legislation. One was a 2015 tax break exempting tree harvesting equipment from state sales tax, predicted to save the industry anywhere between $1.8 million and $2.7 million. The other limited logging on state forests, which critics argued would force more logging on private timber lands like Braun’s.

Because Braun doesn’t harvest or haul the wood himself, Braun’s campaign explained, the moves were ethical.

"The legislation only affected timber harvesters and haulers," spokesman Barney Keller said. "Mike is neither."

But Paul Helmke, director of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, disagreed.

"His defense of casting those votes, which do appear to provide a direct benefit to his timber business, seems pretty weak," Helmke said.

Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, a left-leaning government watchdog group, said Braun’s actions certainly crossed an ethical line, but she hesitated to single him out.

"What he did was on ethically shaky ground," Vaughn said. "But sadly, he was within the ethical framework of the Legislature."

The Indiana General Assembly requires a congressman to recuse himself if the end result of a policy change provides him a direct and unique financial benefit. Because these policies affected more than just Braun, they passed the low bar set by the ethics rules, according to Vaughn.