Michigan health director: Blame me for COVID contract with political firm

At issue is a no-bid contract of roughly $200,000 that the state in April awarded to Kolehouse Strategies, run by a longtime Democratic campaign consultant from west Michigan (Shutterstock)

LANSING — Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon on Thursday apologized and took responsibility for initially contracting with a political firm to perform contact tracing at the height of the state’s COVID-19 crisis. 

“Aiming to save lives and under extraordinary pressure and within our legal authority, we at MDHHS made a mistake entering this contract,” Gordon said in testimony before the Michigan Legislature's Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic.

“I take responsibility for that mistake. Governor Whitmer did the right thing in instructing us to cancel the contract before even one dollar went to the vendor.”

Robert Gordon

“I take responsibility for that mistake. Governor Whitmer did the right thing in instructing us to cancel the contract,” said health director Robert Gordon. (Courtesy photo)

At issue is a no-bid contract of roughly $200,000 that the state in April awarded to Kolehouse Strategies, run by a longtime Democratic campaign consultant from west Michigan. Whitmer quickly canceled the contract as news outlets started asking questions about the arrangement, but Republicans have continued to criticize the deal as improper.

The state in May replaced Kolehouse with the Deloitte accounting firm and Rock Connections, a firm owned by Detroit businessman Dan Gilbert, who will earn more than $1 million for the work under a more expensive contract that has not drawn scrutiny. Scrapping the initial contract "created a delay of a few weeks,” Gordon acknowledged, slowing the state’s ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and perform what he called a “critical” function. 

But contract tracing ramped up "in May and it has continued,” he said, telling lawmakers the department has now made more than 90,000 calls to contacts related to more than 19,000 COVID-19 cases. 

As Bridge previously reported, those contact tracers have faced lies, anger and silence from residents skeptical of calls from unknown numbers. As of mid-July contact tracers were only reaching about 70 percent of those who tested positive for coronavirus within 48 hours of their diagnosis, she said, and two-thirds agree to provide information on their contacts.

Lawmakers grilled Gordon over what Whitmer knew about the Kolehouse contract and when, but they did not break much ground. The governor has said she canceled the contract shortly after learning about it, calling the use of a political vendor an “unnecessary distraction.”

Internal emails show Andrea Taverna, a senior adviser in the health department, helped select Kolehouse after a recommendation from Ed Duggan, who is the son of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and was then a senior adviser in the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. He has since left that post to work for Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. 

Taverna has hired an attorney and recently declined to answer questions from the Michigan Office of Auditor General. 

"At this time, Ms. Taverna continues to decline the opportunity to discuss these issues," the attorney said, according to the auditor’s office, which answered a series of lawmaker questions about the Kolehouse contract in a July 31 letter. 

In canceling the contract, Whitmer said it should have been reviewed by the State Emergency Operations Center, like all others during the pandemic. But the SEOC didn't provide department staff with guidance about that requirement until April 30, according to the auditor. That was 10 days after the contract was signed and nine days after it was canceled. 

In his testimony, Gordon acknowledged MDHHS staff had sought out political firms because they believed “field work experience” was relevant to contact tracing, which involves identifying and then calling anyone who may have had recent contact with a COVID-positive individual. 

But there was no “political motive” behind the Kolehouse selection, Gordon said, noting MDHHS entered into a separate contract for social distancing with Applecart, a data and analytics firm that began to serve Republican candidates but has shifted towards bipartisan work. 

"Our priority was to move quickly and save lives within the law," Gordon said. "Politics had nothing to do with it."

Once the media started asking questions, department emails show Taverna and other officials tried to avoid controversy by shifting the contract work to a subsidiary of Kolehouse Strategies that worked with nonprofits, had a different name but used the same staffers. 

Whitmer communications director Zack Pohl appeared to sign off on that arrangement, calling it “better” but Gordon said he has no reason to believe the governor herself knew about it at that time.

Gordon described that last-minute contract shift as an attempt to “rescue the situation and not lose the work” that had been done to set up the contact tracing program, which was going to rely on some 2,000 volunteers the department had already enlisted. 

“But I don’t think that responded to the fundamental problem” that the contract created an appearance of impropriety, he said. “And I accept responsibility for that.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Fri, 08/14/2020 - 5:43am

Whitmer lied about it.

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 10:08am

WhaT LIES??? The big thing is Dan Gilbert is again ripping of the people of Michigan!!
Is he not under inditment by the feds???

Cee Cie
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 11:10am


Donald Clayton
Fri, 08/14/2020 - 10:10am

So WHY is this BS Peters fault??? Just more lies from that token republican Other wise know as an Uncial Tom!!!

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 4:27pm

It seems a common cycle in Lansing; quietly try something the public finds inappropriate, get caught, place blame, apologize, and quietly try again latter hoping not to get caught the next time.

There always seems to be an effort to find someone to place blame on, but never any effort to change things to prevent it happening again.

In this case it seems many people [Director Gordon, his team working on the problem, etc.] were aware of what was happening and none seemed to raise a concern about conflict of interest. I wonder if that is the atmosphere there [never question or accept such practices] and who sets such an atmosphere.

Sat, 08/15/2020 - 1:46pm

Hahaha if it was Gordon's fault, why didn't you come forward MONTHS AGO when Whitmer was getting flack from that? Obviously he is just a escape goat to make Whitmer look better. Hahaha. It's not gonna work. She has already f*ed up too much. But let's just keep adding more lies, I mean, that's what the Government thinks "the people" need .

Nancy W
Sun, 08/16/2020 - 7:30am

So the GOP objected to a firm that had the skills to do the job because they worked for Democrats but had no problem spending 5 times as much to hire a firm owned by a major Republican donor. That just confirms that their priority is not to govern for the people but to line the pockets of rich.

middle of the mit
Sun, 08/16/2020 - 9:32pm

Nancy W,

No, it just proves that the media isn't liberal because there was NEVER any reporting on that.

OUCH! That has gotta hurt!

Both sides of my body? Equally?