Gretchen Whitmer's Top Aide Helped Pass Funding for EV Battery Plants. Now He’s a Top GM Lobbyist.

Whitmer continues to dole out state taxpayer funds for automakers' EV projects

L: George W. Cook III's official state headshot. R: Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (Getty Images)
June 19, 2024

George W. Cook III served as the top legislative aide to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D., Mich.) while she pushed a historic billion-dollar funding package that has largely been leveraged for electric vehicle projects.

Now, according to state filings reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon, Cook is a senior lobbyist for General Motors, the Detroit-based automaker that was the first company to benefit from that program, the so-called Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SOAR). And since Cook left Whitmer's administration, SOAR has doubled in size to $2 billion.

The revelation shines light on the revolving door between the auto industry and the highest levels of state governments. And it puts a spotlight on the Whitmer administration's heavily criticized efforts to bolster the nation's struggling EV industry, using billions of dollars in state taxpayer funds earmarked through SOAR and other incentive programs.

"It is a blatant handout based on politics," said James Hohman, the director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center. "The SOAR program allows the state to give whatever company lawmakers want however much money they want to give them, with the only limitation being that deals have to be approved by legislative appropriations subcommittees."

"This is a major problem. This is not how budgeting is supposed to work, it's not how economic development is supposed to work," he added. "No other state has a program that transfers hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to companies based exclusively on politics."

In October 2020, Whitmer named Cook her new director of legislative affairs, a position that earned him a top role in crafting policy for the governor. Jen Flood, Whitmer's then-deputy chief of staff, said at the time that Cook brought a "proven track-record of delivering legislative results" to the administration.

Over the next year, the Whitmer administration worked with the state's legislature to fast-track a bill creating the $1 billion SOAR fund, a first-of-its-kind effort in the state to attract private economic development investments. In December, state lawmakers approved the bill and Whitmer signed it into law, saying it would bring "huge, transformational projects" to Michigan.

One month later, Whitmer and General Motors CEO Mary Barra jointly announced the automaker would invest $4 billion to expand production of full-size EV pickups. In addition, the automaker said Ultium Cells, LLC., a joint venture between it and LG Energy Solutions, would invest $2.5 billion to construct a new EV battery plant.

The two projects received a total of $600 million in SOAR funds while another $66 million in SOAR funds were earmarked for the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, the local economic development organization located where the Ultium project is slated to be built. As a result, the Whitmer administration devoted 67 percent of the entire SOAR fund for the General Motors projects, the very first projects to benefit from the program.

Cook was one of six state officials copied on the Whitmer administration's formal legislative request to earmark $666 million for the projects, a request that was later approved by lawmakers.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D.) / Wikimedia Commons

Then, in May 2022, before any other projects were approved for SOAR funding, Cook departed Whitmer's office to join food manufacturing giant Kellanova as its senior director of state government relations, according to his LinkedIn profile.

And, in April, he left Kellanova to join General Motors as its Midwest regional director of state and local public policy in Lansing. According to state disclosures, Cook is registered as a lobbyist for the automaker.

"This situation shows that the ‘all-electric future’ hawked by liberals is just another pay-for-play scheme where corporate donors reward loyal politicians and their staff for sending eye-popping sums of taxpayer dollars their way," Abby Mitch, the executive director of the right-leaning group Michigan Rising Action, told the Free Beacon.

In an email to the Free Beacon, a spokeswoman for General Motors declined to comment on what went into the company's decision to hire Cook, but noted he has significant experience in the auto industry, having served in government affairs roles at Toyota North America and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Whitmer's office didn't respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, since Cook's departure from Whitmer's office, the governor and state legislature have doubled the SOAR fund's size to $2 billion. And additional program funding has been doled out to projects being developed by Ford Motor Company and EV battery makers Gotion and Our Next Energy, among others.

Some of the projects, though, have faced heavy local opposition over both the secrecy with which state officials pursued the development agreements—the Whitmer administration notably required parties to sign non-disclosure agreements when negotiating the deals—and how they benefit Chinese Communist Party-tied companies like Gotion and Contemporary Amperex Technology, a partner in Ford's project.

"On some level it's totally unsurprising that the same corrupt Governor's office that handed out NDAs to lawmakers as a prerequisite for discussion secretly brokered sweetheart deals for a Chinese Communist Party-connected company," said Mitch.

"What is shocking, however, is that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her crooked staff continue to shamelessly bilk the Michigan taxpayer for millions of millions of dollars in handouts for political pet projects," she added. "This reckless abuse of taxpayer funds must be stopped."