MI Lawmakers Seek Subpoena as Whitmer Walks Back Transparency Pledge

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D.) / Getty Images
May 7, 2020

Michigan lawmakers may soon subpoena officials from Democrat Gretchen Whitmer's administration after the governor walked back a pledge to cooperate with an investigation into the state's coronavirus response.

The state legislature created a special oversight committee to examine Whitmer's handling of the pandemic after the governor awarded a lucrative coronavirus-related contract to a major Democratic consulting firm. Committee chairman Matt Hall sent a letter to state house and senate leadership on Tuesday requesting full subpoena power for the committee, noting that the legislature has "requested information numerous times from the administration and received little in response." Whitmer's turn away from transparency "irked" the Republican state representative.

"I have received thousands of calls and emails over the past several weeks about decisions made by the administration during the coronavirus outbreak," Hall said in a statement. "People are facing incredible hardship and they deserve answers from decision-makers."

Whitmer told reporters on Monday she would "absolutely" allow administration officials to testify before the committee if requested, but her office quickly walked back the pledge. Just hours after the press conference, Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown told Gongwer News Service Michigan the oversight committee "does not have power to compel testimony." She said state officials would "do their best to accommodate requests to participate" so long as the requests are "reasonable" and "the committee does not veer into partisan attack."

Whitmer rescinded the contract after the Washington Free Beacon revealed that her campaign had previously hired the liberal data firm. The conflict of interest and subsequent investigation could hurt Whitmer as she navigates a public audition for the role of vice president under presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. While she assured Michigan residents during an April CNN interview that she is spending "every ounce of energy" on the state's coronavirus response, an unnamed adviser told the New York Times on Sunday that Whitmer was "keenly interested" in the role. The Michigan Democrat has continued to benefit from national media appearances, including a Wednesday afternoon live stream with Elle magazine that avoided the controversy.

Whitmer's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Whitmer faced criticism in April after her administration awarded a state contact tracing project to Great Lakes Community Engagement, an organization run by Democratic political consultant Mike Kolehouse. Kolehouse planned to use liberal data firm NGP VAN to collect public health information from Michigan residents. Following Whitmer's termination of the contract, Kolehouse, who was set to earn nearly $200,000 in the deal, took down the website for his consulting firm as well as his Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts. The awarding and subsequent cancellation of the contract raised the eyebrows of Michigan lawmakers, who quickly called for legislative oversight.

"If there's no wrongdoing here, you defend the contract. You don't immediately terminate it," GOP representative Shane Hernandez told the Free Beacon in April. "We deserve to know how this contract came about."

State legislators held a special session in the wake of the contract controversy to create the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic. While the committee does have the power to subpoena documents, it cannot compel state officials to testify. It will likely look for information from officials within the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services after Whitmer blamed the decision on the agency during an April press conference. The health department went on to attribute the decision to four individuals—state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo, opioid strategy senior adviser Andrea Taverna, HIV/STD programs director Kathryn Macomber, and communicable disease division manager Joe Coyle.

The state legislature's coronavirus oversight committee is not the only entity investigating Whitmer's administration in connection to the contract. Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel agreed to investigate the controversy in late April following a request from GOP state senator Jim Runestad. Michigan Republicans have cast doubt on the validity of the Democrat's investigation, citing the fact that Nessel paid NGP VAN more than $5,000 during her 2018 campaign. An April NBC News report profiling Whitmer described Nessel as a close ally of the governor, saying that "there's no one she would rather enter into battle with."

"The people of Michigan deserve to know the truth about what happened with this scheme for political groups to collect COVID data," Stu Sandler, former aide to Republican state attorney general Mike Cox, told the Free Beacon. "Because Dana Nessel used NGP VAN in her campaign and her relationship with the Governor and the Governor's Executive Staff, it would be appropriate that Nessel establish a conflict wall."

Nessel's office did not respond to request for comment.