Michigan Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer denied responsibility after her administration awarded a coronavirus-related contract to a prominent Democratic consulting firm, blaming the decision on the state's health department.
"The department thought that that vendor was the best one for some reason. I don't know what that reason was, but I do know that the Department of Health and Human Services does not have a political bone in their theoretical body," Whitmer said during a Wednesday press conference. "When it was brought to my attention, I told them to cancel it."
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The Whitmer administration on Monday announced that it had awarded a contract to Great Lakes Community Engagement to conduct contact tracing in the state. The organization is run by Democratic political consultant Mike Kolehouse, who planned to use NGP VAN, a liberal data firm working for the governor's reelection campaign, in the effort. Whitmer's office announced the decision to terminate the contract hours after a Washington Free Beacon report revealed that the firm had previously served as a Whitmer campaign vendor.
The state did not hold a competitive bidding process for the contract, which would have paid the political operatives to help collect information from thousands of individuals across the state to better understand the spread of the coronavirus. Whitmer denied any involvement in the decision. She said Wednesday that the state health department "moved forward with the vendor" on its own without seeking approval from the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC). The SEOC announced the partnership with Great Lakes Community Engagement and NGP VAN in a Monday press release.
"They moved forward with the vendor, but they should have gone through the SEOC, which is the clearinghouse for all of this work," Whitmer said. "When it was brought to my attention, I told them to cancel it."
A department spokeswoman told the Free Beacon that the tracing project had already trained volunteers by the time the contract was canceled. She added that neither Whitmer nor the SEOC had a role in awarding the contract, despite the SEOC press release announcing the deal.
"The press release was from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The individuals who send press releases are not involved in approving contracts," she said.
Whitmer called the contact tracing program "an essential part of how we're going to save lives" during the Wednesday press conference, adding that the SEOC will choose a new vendor for the program. She rebuffed concerns that the change in vendor would delay the effort, saying, "I don't believe that much had even gotten started at all, frankly." The state's press release announcing the contract said more than 2,200 volunteers had completed the program's training requirements, and a copy of the contract obtained by Crain's Detroit showed a start date of April 1.
"This was something that came to my attention recently," Whitmer said. "I took the action, and now we are moving forward quickly to try to make sure that we've got a vendor that can do the job, do it well, and ramp up quickly."
State Republicans have expressed concern about the awarding of the contract to companies involved in Democratic political campaigns. GOP state lawmaker Shane Hernandez, who chairs the state's House appropriations committee, sent a letter to Whitmer on Tuesday demanding oversight of the contract-awarding process. Hernandez said the legislature was not aware of the contract before its announcement.
"If there's no wrongdoing here, you defend the contract," Hernandez told the Free Beacon. "You don't immediately terminate it."
Update 4/22/20 7:34 p.m.: This article was updated with comment from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.