Facing Criticism, Whitmer Rescinds Contract Awarded to Dem Consulting Firm

Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D.) / Getty Images
April 21, 2020

Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan announced late Tuesday that the state was rescinding a contract to track the spread of the coronavirus that she had awarded to a Democratic consulting firm, according to Crain's Detroit.

The organization, Great Lakes Community Engagement, is run by Democratic political consultant Mike Kolehouse, who planned to use a software vendor affiliated with a Democratic data firm that is working for the governor's reelection campaign. Whitmer's decision to hire Democratic political operatives to run a public health project sparked immediate backlash, the Washington Free Beacon reported just hours before Whitmer's office said she had terminated the contract.

Kolehouse is the owner of K2K Consulting, an umbrella organization tied to both Great Lakes Community Engagement and Kolehouse Strategies. Both have done extensive field work for Democratic causes. Kolehouse in turn retained as a partner in the contract-tracing operation an arm of the Democratic consulting firm NGP VAN, which is currently working with Whitmer's reelection campaign. NGP VAN said it had not been contracted by the state but declined further comment.

For Whitmer, who has rocketed to national prominence during the coronavirus scandal in part through clashes with President Donald Trump, it was an unforced and potentially costly error. Since instituting a firm stay-at-home order in late March, Whitmer's name has been bandied about as a potential vice presidential nominee, though she told the Washington Post on Tuesday that she hadn't "yet" been contacted by the campaign of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Republicans and the news media began raising questions about the contracts after they were announced in a press release Monday evening, pressing the governor about why Democratic political operatives were hired to run a massive public health project. Some expressed concern that the Democratic firms would appropriate the personal data of Michigan residents for political gain, a charge they denied.

The press release came from the State Emergency Operations Center, though a spokeswoman for the governor told the Free Beacon after publication that the organization had not approved the contract and that the organization would select the subsequent vendor for the contact tracing project.

"This contract should have been approved by the State Emergency Operations Center. This issue is being corrected, and a different vendor and software platform will be selected by the SEOC," the spokeswoman said. "The state is committed to ensuring this important tracing work can begin quickly to help save lives, while also ensuring that public health data is safe and secure."

A spokeswoman for the State Emergency Operations Center did not respond to a request for comment.

According to a copy of the contract obtained by Crain's, Great Lakes Community Engagement began working on the project on April 1, nearly three weeks before the project was announced publicly.

NGP VAN, which was paid nearly $5,000 by Whitmer's campaign in 2019 and is working on her reelection campaign, said the Democratic firm would not appropriate the data it gleaned from Michigan residents.

"NGP VAN's CRM outreach software is used by a large number of nonprofits, governments, and corporations to manage their contacts with people,"  a spokesman for the company, Max Kamin-Cross, told the Free Beacon on Tuesday. "Each client owns their own data; we are not a data company. We are proud to be helping reduce the number of coronavirus deaths."

Though NGP VAN's software was being used by Great Lakes Community Engagement, Kamin-Cross said it never had a contract with the state of Michigan, though the press release explicitly stated that both groups were contracted.

"We were not contracted with the state of Michigan at any point," Kamin-Cross said. "Beyond that, we're unfortunately unable to provide details on specific clients."

Whitmer's spokeswoman told the Free Beacon that the state had signed just one contract -- with Kolehouse's firm -- and that he in turn had tapped NGP Van. Kolehouse did not respond to a request for comment.

After a local county commissioner, Wes Nakagiri, was trained to participate in the program as a volunteer, he accused Whitmer of using the coronavirus tracking effort for political gain. The Republican highlighted training materials listing Kolehouse Strategies and NGP VAN as partners in the effort, saying he was troubled to see that health information was "being stored in a Democrat-aligned database."

"By selecting partisan Democrat campaign companies, the Whitmer administration has chosen to politicize the COVID-19 crisis," Nakagiri said.