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Lawsuit over $25M Clare health park grant can advance, judge rules

Complete Health Campus project
A judge paved the way for continuing litigation over the Complete Health Park project in Clare that has been suspended amid a state probe. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
  • Michigan judge allows lawsuit to move forward in contract dispute over Complete Health Park project in Clare
  • The state suspended a $25 million government grant for the project amid an ongoing internal investigation
  • The grant went to a former aide of then-House Speaker Jason Wentworth, who put the money in the state budget last year

LANSING — A legal battle between central players in a suspended $25 million state government grant pushed by former House Speaker Jason Wentworth can move forward toward trial, a judge ruled last week. 

The decision by Judge Mark Duthie, visiting from neighboring Isabella County, sets the stage for continued litigation that could shed light on the stalled Complete Health Park project in Clare now under investigation by the state. 

Duthie rejected a request to dismiss the breach of contract lawsuit against the IW Consulting firm run by David Coker, a one-time legislative aide who was awarded the $25 million grant added to last year’s state budget by his former boss, Wentworth, R-Farwell.

Former House Speaker Jason Wentworth headshot
Former House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, said he has pushed for funding for years for a mid-Michigan health campus but played no role in a former aide getting a grant for the project.

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The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services suspended the grant this spring and launched an investigation, citing possible double payments. Records indicate Coker used his new Complete Health Park nonprofit to pay his IW Consulting firm more than $820,000 within days of getting government funding.

The project has raised eyebrows because it not only involved Wentworth and his former aide, but that it was to be built on 70 acres purchased for $3.5 million from state Rep. Tom Kunse, R-Clare. He succeeded Wentworth in the Legislature and has since questioned the grant. 

Coker is the former chair of the Clare County Republican Party. Emails obtained by Bridge Michigan indicate state officials felt pressured to expedite approval of the grant in December because its recipient is “well connected politically.”

The Clare County lawsuit was filed by Goldman Advisers, a consulting firm run by Anthony Demasi of Mount Pleasant, who is separately accused of criminal bank fraud. He alleges Coker hired him to work on the Clare health park project but paid only $37,500 on a $300,000 contract before terminating the agreement.

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The suit includes a series of explosive allegations, including a claim that Coker and Wentworth schemed to "skim off the grant money for the project for their personal gain and benefit,” an accusation both have denied. 

In his new opinion, the judge dismissed broad fraud and civil conspiracy claims levied by Demasi, along with claims against Coker in his personal capacity. 

But the judge allowed the breach of contract case against Coker's IW Consulting firm to move forward, along with a claim of “tortious interference.”

Demasi helped draft a feasibility study required for Coker’s nonprofit to qualify for the $25 million state grant and was listed as a project manager on application paperwork filed last fall, among other things. 

But Coker ended their contract in February, about two weeks after Demasi was indicted on federal bank fraud charges for allegedly using the names of his employees to apply for credit cards. 

In a termination letter from IW Consulting, Coker cited the federal indictment and said he had also "become aware" of Demasi's previous federal prison term in Chicago, where Demasi had been convicted of defrauding investors of millions of dollars and in 2010 was sentenced to 60 months behind bars.

But Demasi, in his lawsuit, alleges Coker had long known about his criminal history in Chicago and worked with him anyway.

Coker had sought to dismiss the suit in its entirety, arguing that Demasi — a former attorney who was disbarred in Chicago — had misrepresented himself as a lawyer to obtain a contract for what amounted to legal services.

“We have a disbarred lawyer, who’s presently under federal indictment, who’s trying to practice law and trying to extort money out of people to practice law when he’s not allowed to,” Coker’s attorney, Joshua Blanchard, argued in a Sept. 15 hearing.

The judge, Duthie, rejected that argument, noting the contract did not appear "on its face" to require the unauthorized practice of law and included a disclaimer explicitly stating that Goldman Advisers is "not a law firm" and "makes no claims" to be able to represent IW Consulting or Complete Health Park in court. 

Demasi, who spoke with Bridge briefly after the mid-September hearing, said Coker "approached me for the contract" and "gave me a list of things to do all within the bounds of consulting."

"He's known about my past," Demasi said. "He knows about everything."

Speaking to Bridge, Demasi declined to discuss the ongoing investigation by the state health department’s Office of Inspector General, which is probing the $25 million grant awarded to Coker’s Complete Health Park nonprofit. 

In court filings, Demasi has claimed Coker initially approached him in May 2021 with a plan to work on the Clare health park project through an existing nonprofit called the Beta Sole Foundation, which Coker founded in 2017 but later handed over to Demasi.  

That was nearly a year before Wentworth would successfully add the $25 million grant to the state budget.

The suit claims Coker and IW Consulting solicited Demasi’s firm to write language for a potential state grant that would be "so narrow" that only Clare County would be eligible for the project, and only the Beta Sole Foundation could manage it.

Alleging that he was working on the promise of future pay, Demasi claims his consulting company wrote risk analysis memos, conducted “in-depth research
for the project and prepared lists of potential donors to supplement state funding, among other things. 

Demasi’s lawsuit alleges Coker and Wentworth set aside portions of the land "in order to be able to open up businesses for themselves" near the health park. 

And they "further schemed" to cut Demasi's Beta Sole Foundation out of the process so they could "have complete control of the grant money award," the suit claims. 

Wentworth has denied any attempt to steer the grant toward his former aide, He previously called Demasi’s claims "absolutely garbage," "ridiculous" and “false.” Coker, too, has denied any wrongdoing, saying he is trying to do something “great for the community” the Clare region by opening the wellness facility.

"There's nothing underhanded, nothing shady," Coker told Bridge in May. "This is being done for the public, essentially by the public. Someone has to do it."

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Records obtained by Bridge in July show Coker's non-profit paid his for-profit consulting firm more than $820,000 within days of obtaining the $25 million state grant, billing $200 an hour for 911 hours of work and charging a 7 percent management fee for all additional spending on the project.

Another $150,000 went to Demasi's Beta Sole Foundation for “marketing/website” work.

Coker’s consulting firm hired Demasi's Goldman Advisers firm to draft a feasibility study and perform other consulting services for the Clare project, according to an October 2022 "statement of work" included in the lawsuit and signed by both men. 

The contract promised to pay Goldman Advisers firm $300,000, plus expenses for work on the Clare health park grant. It also gave Demasi the opportunity to earn a 15 percent "bonus fee" for any private funds he raised for the project.

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