UPDATE 6:45 p.m.: After publication of this article, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration announced that the contract was being rescinded. Read more here.
Michigan Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer has handed over control of the state’s new contact-tracing operation to one of her own campaign vendors and one of the left’s biggest technology firms. The move has sparked concern that she is using the coronavirus to strengthen the Democratic Party’s data operation, potentially at the expense of public health.
The Whitmer administration announced Monday that it had awarded a contract for contact tracing in the state to Every Action VAN, an arm of the Democratic data behemoth NGP VAN. The liberal firm works with all of the major Democratic campaign committees and hundreds of labor unions across the country, according to its website, and will "help organize remote phone banking and track information and contacts" for Michigan, a state press release said.
The group is run by Stuart Trevelyan, a longtime Democratic campaign operative who worked in the Clinton White House and is currently assisting presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign with voter outreach and fundraising, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Whitmer’s own gubernatorial campaign paid NGP VAN nearly $5,000 in 2019, according to state campaign finance records. Every Action is a branch of the firm that works with nonprofit organizations.
States across the country have begun contact tracing operations in the hope that wide-scale interviews will unlock crucial information and prevent additional infections. But Whitmer appears to be the first governor to employ a group that typically focuses on politics to help with the task. In Massachusetts, Republican governor Charlie Baker has partnered with the health care nonprofit Partners in Health to conduct contract tracing and track diseases across the globe.
Every Action’s other clients include the radical anti-Israel group Jewish Voice for Peace, Planned Parenthood, and the left-wing National Women’s Law Center. Whitmer’s office did not respond to a request for comment, and the state has not disclosed the dollar amount of the contract awarded to the firm.
Partnering with Every Action, Michigan hopes to collect information from thousands of individuals across the state to better understand the spread of the coronavirus. Trained volunteers are placing phone calls to those who have been in contact with coronavirus-infected individuals, inquiring about their health and advising them on appropriate precautions.
But state Republicans are raising concerns that the project will give the Democratic firm access to health and other private data of unwitting residents.
Wes Nakagiri, a local county commissioner who was trained to participate in the program, told the Washington Free Beacon that taxpayer money should not be used to assist Democratic candidates and campaigns.
"I’ve been involved with grassroots activists for a little over a decade. I’ve never seen anything like this on the conservative side of the ledger, where you’ve got this entity working with governmental bodies, dumping huge networks of information into one database," Nakagiri told the Free Beacon. "They’re asking for contact information, they’re asking for who else lives in the house—it’s troubling that this information is being stored in a Democrat-aligned database."
A spokesman for NGP VAN told the Free Beacon that the data collected for the contact tracing study will be owned by Michigan and not used for political purposes.
"NGP VAN’s CRM outreach software is used by a large number of nonprofits, governments, and corporations to manage their contacts with people," said Max Kamin-Cross. "Each client owns their own data; we are not a data company. We are proud to be helping reduce the number of coronavirus deaths."
The state also awarded a contract for contact tracing to Great Lakes Community Engagement, a group operated by the Democratic consultant Michael Kolehouse. Kolehouse is the owner of Kolehouse Strategies, which advertises itself as a door-knocking firm for progressive candidates and brandishes praise on its website from Michigan Democratic Party chairwoman Lavora Barnes.
Publicly available training materials indicate that Kolehouse Strategies is scheduling shift work for volunteers. Kolehouse did not respond to a request for comment.
Elected in 2019, Whitmer has risen to national prominence during the coronavirus crisis as her state has struggled to contain one of the worst outbreaks of the disease.
Though her initial response—a stay-at-home order issued in late March that shuttered nonessential businesses—drew praise and led to chatter about a vice presidential nomination, a second stay-at-home order signed earlier this month has drawn intense backlash, with critics arguing that the business closures it mandates are arbitrary and that her approach has been too heavy handed. While Whitmer's name has been thrown around as a possibility for vice president, she told the Washington Post that she has not yet been vetted though she has been in frequent contact with Biden.
Thousands of Michigan residents flooded the statehouse in Lansing Thursday to protest the order. Whitmer, who has called the order "one of the nation’s most conservative," criticized the protesters during a Monday press conference, accusing them of blocking ambulances from reaching a nearby hospital, a claim disputed by local police and the hospital's spokesman.
The latest order, which went into effect on April 9, forcibly closes local stores selling "nonessential" items, including gardening seeds and paint, but allows for the sale of lottery tickets and marijuana. It also permits big-box stores such as Walmart to sell nonessential goods for curbside pickup, allowing multi-state corporations to circumvent the order while local retailers fight to survive.