Whitmer Dodges Coronavirus Oversight Probe

Potential VP pick refuses to testify in oversight hearing about admin's contract with Dem firm

Gretchen Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D., Mich.) / Getty Images
June 5, 2020

Michigan's Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer refused an invitation to testify before a special oversight committee created by the state legislature to examine her widely criticized handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Republican state lawmakers on Thursday requested that Whitmer testify before the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic, which was created after the governor awarded a lucrative coronavirus-related contract to a major Democratic consulting firm that had previously worked for her campaign. Whitmer said she would not testify during a Friday press conference, citing the legislature's ongoing lawsuit over her use of executive authority throughout the pandemic.

"At this point we are in a legal battle and I don't think that testifying in front of the committee makes a lot of sense," Whitmer said. "So I won't be accepting the invitation."

Committee chairman Matt Hall slammed Whitmer's decision in a Friday statement, saying the governor "didn't even wait 24 hours to decide she was not willing to be honest and forthright with them."

"The COVID-19 outbreak has ushered in unprecedented times for our state, altering lives and livelihoods. Many people feel like they don't have a voice as decisions are being made," Hall said. "Our committee has allowed people to have a platform to make their voice heard, so I am disappointed the governor will not offer Michigan residents the clarity they need and deserve by testifying before our select committee."

Whitmer, a potential vice presidential candidate, initially said she would "absolutely" allow administration officials to testify before the committee if requested during a May press conference. Her spokeswoman later walked back the pledge, saying state officials would "do their best to accommodate requests to participate." The committee currently has the power to subpoena documents but cannot compel state officials to testify.

Whitmer rescinded the state's contact tracing contract—which would have paid Democratic political consultant Mike Kolehouse and liberal data firm NGP VAN to collect sensitive health data—just hours after announcing it. She went on to blame the decision on the state's health department, saying "when it was brought to my attention, I told them to cancel it." However, internal emails show that top Whitmer aides gave the deal the "green light" after changing the names of the organizations listed in the contract to appear less partisan.

"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."

The emails also show that health department officials questioned the contract, which would have seen Kolehouse earn nearly $200,000, days before it was signed.

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

Whitmer's office did not respond to a request for comment on the decision and did not reveal whether Whitmer would be willing to testify following the conclusion of the lawsuit.