Gov. Whitmer: I didn’t OK Dem firm for coronavirus project, despite emails

Communications Director Zack Pohl is “not a person that signs off on state contracts,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Thursday. “So any interpretation that implies that that was a part of his role was absolutely incorrect.” (Photo courtesy of the governor's office)

LANSING — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday disputed a health official’s characterization that her office gave a “green light” for the state to hire a Democratic campaign consultant’s firm to lead a volunteer COVID-19 contact tracing program.

The first-term Democrat said she did not personally learn about the contract until after it was signed on April 20, despite an email that showed her communications director discussing the “arrangement” days before the $194,250 deal was finalized.

“When I found out about the contract, I told them to cancel it,” Whitmer told reporters Thursday during a briefing on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Communications Director Zack Pohl is “not a person that signs off on state contracts,” she said. “So any interpretation that implies that that was a part of his role was absolutely incorrect.”

Her denial follows a Bridge Magazine story Tuesday about emails obtained through a public records request that appear to show Michigan officials tried to avoid controversy over the contact tracing contract by shifting planned work to apolitical subsidiaries of firms with known partisan leanings.

The contract nonetheless sparked accusations of political patronage and questions over whether data collected from COVID-19 patients could be used for political purposes. Whitmer cancelled the contract a day after it was signed, delaying the project by weeks as the state scrambled to find a new vendor.

Andrea Taverna, a senior adviser in the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, told colleagues in an April 17 email that “we got the green light from EOG [the executive office of the governor] to move forward with a slightly different organizational arrangement of the contact tracing volunteer work.”

“This would still be working with Mike Kolehouse,” she said, referencing a longtime political consultant from west Michigan, “so work there isn’t lost — it’s just organized somewhat differently.”

Three days later, the state signed a contract with Great Lakes Community Engagement, a firm run by Kolehouse that Taverna said serves nonprofit and corporate clients, rather than Kolehouse Strategies, which had been working with the state “pro bono” since April 1.

The Whitmer administration said Tuesday that Taverna’s email followed a phone conversation and email exchange about “optics” with Pohl, the governor’s communications director. 

Those emails were not included in the documents originally provided to Bridge Magazine on Tuesday. 

The exchange “simply got missed when the [Freedom of Information Act] office uploaded the files” to a web portal on Tuesday morning, Lynn Sutfin, a state health department spokesperson, told Bridge on Wednesday. 

“It was realized by the staff member a couple hours after they initially uploaded them and the folder was reuploaded,” Sutfin said.

 

The exchange in question, finally obtained by Bridge on Wednesday, shows Taverna emailing Pohl and fellow Whitmer communications staffer Eileen Belden with an outline of what she called an “alternative organizational arrangement” for the contract tracing program. 

Great Lakes Community Engagement would be hired to do the work, Taverna said. And that firm would use EveryAction VAN, a “voter/individual contact platform used by nonprofits” to call anyone who came into contact with COVID-19 patients, she said. Training documents suggest the state had considered using software from NGP VAN, a leading provider of Democratic campaign tools owned by the same company as Every Action.

Pohl gave only a brief response to Taverna’s proposed structure for the contact tracing work: “Yes, that’s better.”

In a previous phone call with Taverna, Pohl had “raised concerns that using a political vendor would be a distraction from the important work that needed to be done,” according to Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown. 

That’s not clear from the email he sent Taverna. 

Communications within the governor’s office are not subject to public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act in Michigan, and Whitmer said Monday she does not know if anyone else in her office knew about the contact tracing conversation beyond Pohl and Belden, her communications staffers. 

“I can tell you that I did not know that this contract had been entered into by the department,” Whitmer said, “and as soon as it became known to me, I told them to cancel it, and they did.”

Taverna’s email, as first reported Tuesday by Bridge, prompted a new round of partisan outcry over the contract process.  

Michael Joyce, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee called Whitmer’s previous claim she had no prior knowledge of the contract “a contender for lie of the year.” 

House Appropriations Chair Shane Hernandez, R-Port Huron, said Whitmer had damaged her own credibility with Michiganders.

“We still have questions about how much data the vendor handled while under contract, what happened to that data, and any other contracts that are in place for political vendors,” Hernandez said Wednesday. “I am hopeful that now our remaining questions on contact tracing can be answered and the governor will let the people of Michigan know why statements made in the past on this topic were not clear and factual.”

Internal emails show health department officials disputed claims of partisan motivation for the contact tracing contract, which included 2 ½ pages of patient data privacy requirements.

Taverna, in an April 16 email to colleagues, noted that Kolehouse had also signed a separate data use and non-disclosure agreement that required his firm to “destroy” any data after completing work for the state.

“The reason we’re using this system is that it allows for remote phone banking & data collection — exactly the process we need for contact tracing,” Taverna said, referencing the EveryAction Van software that Kolehouse was going to use. 

“But there’s a big firewall between this & firm’s other work.”

Under emergency rules, the state is not required to solicit bids from multiple vendors. But Whitmer has said the contract should have been reviewed by the State Emergency Operations Center, which is overseeing state contracts during the pandemic. 

An April 18 email obtained by Bridge shows at least one person in the Emergency Operations Center — spokesperson Dale George — was aware of the matter before the contract was signed and approved a media statement from the health department stating that NGP VAN was “no longer under consideration” and that a final vendor decision was expected the following week.

George said Wednesday he had simply been doing his job as a communications specialist and that his comments did not reflect any contract review process. 

“The Joint Information Center is made up (of) state agency (public information officers) working together to create a one stop shop for the public and reporters to get information and answers to questions,” he said. “It is not involved in the approval of contracts.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Comments

Erwin Haas
Thu, 05/28/2020 - 7:47pm

I had made a comment on this at least 2 weeks ago wondering why Bridgemi had smothered this story; and then find that a Dan Gilbert's firm was awarded a million dollars to do the same job;
From Open Secrets, Donor look ups I find that the new businessman to get this now 1 million dollar contract and access to all Michigan's citizens data Dan Gilbert seems to run a payday lender type operation and is a big Democrat donor. Keeps the money and data in the family, y'know.
GILBERT, DAN
FRANKLIN, MI 48025 QUICKEN LOANS 10-12-2016 $1,575 Wyoming State Democratic Central Cmte (D)

Why is this information which is easily gotten not pursued???

Kevin Grand
Thu, 05/28/2020 - 8:45pm

Heh heh heh.

Just keep talking, governor.

Keep talking...

john
Thu, 05/28/2020 - 8:55pm

I have enjoyed the relatively non partisan articles offered by bridge, but frankly this article definitely has slant and bias. frankly the story is not even worthy of print. I will be stopping my donation this month.

Joel Kurth
Thu, 05/28/2020 - 9:00pm

Hi John: I hope you reconsider and I would sincerely like to know your feelings about why you think this piece isn’t objective. 

Please feel free to reach out to me at jkurth@bridgemi.com

Hahahahaha
Fri, 05/29/2020 - 9:13am

According to John, the articles are only "subjective" if they fawn over every decision that the Governor has made. Apparently, he is OK with Witmer's lies and dirty dealings.

Theresa
Fri, 05/29/2020 - 9:25am

I agree, John. I too have enjoyed the articles by Bridge but noticing recently an ugly slant, notably anti-Whitmer. I will be stopping my donation as well. I like reading different perspectives; however, your writers shouldn't make things up and then work to justify their nonsense.

Matt
Fri, 05/29/2020 - 11:45am

Would you and John want to bet which way that Bridge writers went in the last Gov. election? Not whining here but just goes with the territory for journalists (or teachers, social workers, artists etc.)! Sometimes things are what they are and catching politicians in a lie is to fun to resist for any journaist no matter which way they lean.

Mike
Sat, 05/30/2020 - 10:26am

As long as you agree with them, the articles arent slanted, or anti-Whitmer? Maybe CNN, or MSNBC are better suited to your need to agree with whats reported. When you agree with everything that you news source says, all the time, your source is slanted. The way Whitmer has handled all of this is going to break your heart when reported HONESTLY on

Todd
Fri, 05/29/2020 - 12:33pm

Why because they tell the truth about your party once every few months??

middle of the mit
Fri, 05/29/2020 - 8:07pm

No that is not it. Unlike most "conservative outlets", this one publishes both sides and holds both sides to account. Can you say that for your favorite newspaper? Do they beat up on your side?

The thing that grabs my goat is that while Bridge is a MI paper, the report doesn't tell us how other Governors or the Feds are dealing with the same scenario.

Would you be happier if Governor Gretchen gave the no bid contract to the same Republican operative Jared Kushner is giving the Fed contract to?

https://www.rawstory.com/2020/04/fox-news-analyst-blasts-jared-kushners-...

https://nypost.com/2020/04/08/jared-kushner-planning-national-coronaviru...

I worry about what they are doing with our information and if it will be political? Don't you?

This is why our Governments are falling apart. Everything has become partisan. No one can hire anyone to do anything because republicans yell unless they are allowed to be the only ones hired to do government business, but they are the ones that don't believe government should do anything and then they sell it or let it fall apart and blame dems.

Should we have regulations? Who pays for the regulators and how do we pay for them? We can't have it both ways if you are wanting to gut regulations and taxes.

We get broken government, failing infrastructure, failing schools and failing towns and cities. Is that good for the people or business?

Welcome to Michigan. For that matter.....welcome to America.

Erwin Haas
Thu, 05/28/2020 - 9:01pm

From Open Secrets, Donor look ups I find that the new businessman to get this now 1 million dollar contract and access to all Michigan's citizens data Dan Gilbert seems to run a payday lender type operation and is a big Democrat donor.
GILBERT, DAN
FRANKLIN, MI 48025 QUICKEN LOANS 10-12-2016 $1,575 Wyoming State Democratic Central Cmte (D)

Roby
Thu, 05/28/2020 - 9:52pm

Good thing for Whitmer that emergency rules allow her to give out no bid contacts. As long as she keeps proclaiming emergencies, she doesn’t have to engage in processes that are required during normal law-abiding times. Emergency powers are always the route to tyranny.

Just Keep Lying Gov
Fri, 05/29/2020 - 9:16am

Whitmer actually believes that if she lies enough, then that lie will become the truth simply because she says so. Or she's narcissistic enough to believe that everything she says is the truth.

Sadly, most of her lackey followers believe whatever lie she spoon feeds them.

Stephanie
Fri, 05/29/2020 - 10:04am

All of this over a $200,000 contract that probably has virtually no profit (after expenses) for a vendor that clearly was capable of doing the work? Meanwhile Trump/Mnuchin has a $500-BILLION slush fund, with no oversight, that they can hand out to their corporate patrons as they see fit. Clearly the GOP "outrage" over the contact-tracing contract is pure partisan baloney.

10x25mm
Fri, 05/29/2020 - 3:18pm

Is the value of the contract the issue or is the exposure of personal data in the contact tracing process the issue? Kolehouse Strategies would probably have paid the State of Michigan to perform the contact tracing if they could retain the juicy personal details developed.

middle of the mit
Fri, 05/29/2020 - 8:53pm

The funny, or not funny at all thing, is that if Kolehouse Strategies wanted your information all they would have to do is purchase it from your cell carrier, Google, Face Plant, or anyone else for that matter, and anyone could do this, parents do it all the time, Your information isn't your information. It's the businesses information and they sell it. Do you know who refuses to put in consumer protections?

How do you feel about Jared Kushners plan?

https://nypost.com/2020/04/08/jared-kushner-planning-national-coronaviru...

Is this different?

Todd
Fri, 05/29/2020 - 12:32pm

The sky is not blue, it's purple. This chick.....

Arjay
Fri, 05/29/2020 - 12:50pm

Boat launch, contract? Contract, boat launch? Which is first, which is second, on the big whopper list?

Matt
Fri, 05/29/2020 - 10:36pm

How soon you forgot her denial of any huge gas tax plans in her campaign!

William C. Plumpe
Sat, 05/30/2020 - 12:14pm

Seems to me splitting hairs on the Corona virus contract. Nothing wrong with giving work to friends---happens in private business all the time. Wrong only if friend breaks contract rules or gets special preferential treatment. And even then the alledged misdeed needs to be substantial and egregious.