Michigan attorney general investigating $25M grant to ex-House speaker’s aide
- Michigan attorney general probes $25 million grant tied to a onetime aide to former House Speaker Jason Wentworth
- The state stopped payments to the Complete Health Park in May over double payment concerns
- The state stopped payments after $10 million had already been spent on the now-stalled project
LANSING — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office is now investigating a $25 million, no-bid grant awarded to a former legislative aide to ex-House Speaker Jason Wentworth, a state health department official confirmed Tuesday.
As first reported by Bridge Michigan, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General began investigating a grant to build a Clare health campus in March because of possible double payments involving a nonprofit led by David Coker, the former aide.
Now, the inspector general “has referred this matter over to the attorney general’s office,” state health spokesperson Lynn Sutfin said Tuesday, declining to share any additional information because the case “remains an open investigation.”
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The state issued a “stop order” on grant payments in May, the same day Bridge first reported on the grant. Emails reported by Bridge show state officials felt pressure to speed payments because the recipient was “well connected politically.”
Karla Ruest, a lobbyist who told Bridge she helped Coker with the grant, said Tuesday she was interviewed by the attorney general’s office. She did not say when.
Ruest said she told investigators she helped Coker as a favor and was not paid to send the project’s feasibility study to state officials and ask them when the grant would be awarded.
“I had one conversation with the AGs office. I told them exactly what I told (Bridge).” Ruest said in a text message. “ Have not had further contact.”
Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that Ruest — a former health department staffer — contacted state health workers on several occasions to ask for information about the awarding of the grant.
Wentworth, a Farwell Republican who was term-limited out of office, worked to add the $25 million grant to last year’s state budget for creation of a health and fitness park in Clare.
But he has denied any attempt to steer the funding toward Coker, his former aide and a onetime chair of the Clare County Republican Party.
"We’re unaware any referral has been made to the AG’s office," said Mary Ann Sabo, a spokesperson for Wentworth.
"If that is the case, we’re glad to hear so a proper investigation can be done, the truth can come out and the proper parties can be held accountable in this matter if wrongdoing has occurred."
Records show Coker created a nonprofit, Complete Health Park, last year as lawmakers were finalizing the budget.
He then used that nonprofit to secure the grant and within days had paid his separate for-profit consulting firm more than $820,000.
Coker’s nonprofit used another $3.5 million to buy land from Wentworth’s successor in the Legislature, state Rep. Tom Kunse, a Clare Republican who was not in office when the grant was approved and has since questioned Coker’s handling of the money.
Coker, who did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday, had pitched the concept of a rural health center, saying it would include a pool, fitness areas, athletic courts and fields, and other buildings for medical offices.
At one point, he suggested the local hospital may move to the site, but hospital officials disputed that suggestion. One of the first things that would be built, officials said, would have been a 24-lane bowling alley.
Those plans were laid out in a feasibility study prepared by Anthony Demasi, a longtime Coker associate who was indicted on separate federal bank fraud charges in December — the same month the state finalized the grant.
Demasi later sued Coker, claiming he was not fully paid for his work on the project. He also alleged Coker and Wentworth had plotted to “skim” money from the grant, a claim both have denied. That lawsuit remains active in Clare County Circuit Court.
Demasi, who was at one time listed as a program manager on the state grant application, is a disbarred attorney who was convicted of defrauding investors of millions of dollars in Chicago and sentenced to 60 months in prison in 2010.
In a different appropriation bill while speaker, Wentworth was also able to secure a $6.8 million grant to dredge a Clare lake surrounded by homes, including one owned by Coker.
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