Internal Emails Contradict Michigan Governor's Story on Controversial Coronavirus Contracts

Whitmer's office gave 'green light' on contract awarded to Dem consulting firm

Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D.) / Getty Images
May 27, 2020

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer's (D.) office gave the "green light" on a coronavirus-related contract awarded to a Democratic consulting firm that worked for her campaign, according to internal emails obtained by Bridge Magazine.

The documents contradict the Whitmer administration's public statements denying any knowledge of the lucrative deal, as well as the Democrat's attempt to blame the state health department when controversy over the contact tracing contract erupted. The emails also reveal that agency officials expressed doubts about the purpose of the contract and raised questions about the players enlisted to carry out the collection of sensitive health data from Michigan residents.

In fact, the documents show that Whitmer's office asked the health department to change the names of the organizations listed in the announcement to appear less partisan. Both vendors in question, the liberal NGP VAN and local Democratic consultant Mike Kolehouse's firm, Kolehouse Strategies, had affiliated entities with names less likely to raise eyebrows. Kolehouse, for example, also runs an organization called Great Lakes Community Engagement, and Whitmer's office asked that the health department contract with that entity rather than his consulting firm.

"We got the green light from EOG [executive office of the governor] to move forward with a slightly different organizational arrangement of the contact tracing volunteer work," health department senior adviser Andrea Taverna wrote. "This would still be working with Mike Kolehouse, so work there isn't lost—it's just organized somewhat differently."

Whitmer, a potential vice presidential candidate, canceled the contract hours after the Washington Free Beacon revealed that NGP VAN had served as a vendor on her gubernatorial campaign. She blamed the decision on the state's health department, claiming that the agency "moved forward with the vendor" on its own and did not seek approval from the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) and Whitmer's executive office. A health department spokeswoman previously told the Free Beacon that neither the SEOC nor Whitmer had a role in the contract, but internal emails reveal that officials from both offices signed off on press releases discussing the contract.

"Looks good," SEOC spokesman Dale George said on April 18 in response to a draft press release discussing the contract awarding process. "Fine with SEOC/JIC." When the state announced the contract with Kolehouse's Great Lakes Community Engagement two days later, Whitmer communications director Zack Pohl suggested that the subsequent press release should "hit the fact that it's used by [the Michigan Nonprofit Association] again" in an effort to downplay the organization's partisan ties.

The emails emerge as Whitmer faces accusations of hypocrisy stemming from her rigid shutdown order. The Democrat admitted Tuesday that her husband tried to use her name to take the family's boat on the water for Memorial Day weekend even as her administration cracked down on boating during the pandemic lockdown. According to GOP state senator Tom Barrett, Whitmer's office first "adamantly denied" the accusation. Whitmer called it "a failed attempt at humor" during a Tuesday press conference.

Whitmer's office did not respond to a request for comment. A Whitmer spokesperson told Bridge Magazine that the contract was "ultimately approved" by officials in the health department and not the executive office. But emails from agency staffers show that the administration played a role in moving the arrangement forward. The state's health department declined to comment on the new report.

In an email sent to health department officials just days before the contract was canceled, Taverna said that Whitmer's office gave the "green light" after altering the announcement to list Great Lakes Community Engagement instead of Kolehouse Strategies. Both are assumed names of Kolehouse's consulting firm, K2K Strategies. Taverna noted that while both entities are "owned and staffed by the same individuals," Great Lakes Community Engagement "serves non-profits." Its top client is Fair and Equal Michigan, an LGBTQ advocacy group with ties to Michigan Democratic politics.

One health department official, senior deputy of financial operations Farah Hanley, questioned the difference between Great Lakes Community Engagement and Kolehouse Strategies in an April 17 email.

"Same organization but a different name?" she said.

Taverna also said the state would list Every Action VAN on the contract instead of NGP VAN. The two groups share top leadership, but Every Action VAN works with nonprofit organizations, while NGP VAN serves Democratic campaigns. Every Action VAN's other clients include Planned Parenthood and the radical anti-Israel group Jewish Voice for Peace.

The emails also show that health department officials questioned the contract days before it was signed. Kolehouse was set to earn nearly $200,000 from the contract, which some within the agency believed to be redundant.

"$21,000 a week and a pre pay for a firm to do where we should be using employees sitting at home," Hanley wrote to Elizabeth Hertel, the health department's senior deputy director.

"Why are we spending money on this instead of trying to work with google or Microsoft on tracing through smartphones," Hertel responded. "This seems a bit antiquated."

The Free Beacon previously reported that the governor's office has an existing data storage contract with Microsoft, and other state agencies use Salesforce products for similar purposes. The states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts announced partnerships with Salesforce for contact tracing projects in early April.

Whitmer has risen to national prominence during the coronavirus pandemic thanks in part to an April feud with President Donald Trump. The attention landed her on presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden's vice presidential shortlist, and Whitmer confirmed on May 19 that she had an "opening conversation" with the Biden campaign on the VP role.