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Michigan Republicans seek campaign finance probe of Whitmer trip to Florida

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has faced criticism for weeks over her handling of a mid-March trip to Florida on a jet whose owners have business interests with the state. (Bridge Michigan file photo)

The Michigan Republican Party is asking Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to investigate whether fellow Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's campaign broke state law by paying for her private jet flight to Florida.

In a campaign finance complaint lodged Friday, Michigan GOP executive director Jason Roe claimed the trip cannot be considered an allowable "incidental office expense" because it was "not related to any official business or campaign activity."

Whitmer flew to Florida and back over a four-day span in mid-March, a trip she said allowed her to visit her father, Richard Whitmer, who she said suffers from a chronic health condition. The governor was not yet fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and her administration was discouraging out-of-state travel around that time.

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"This is 100 percent a trip that was for the governor's personal benefit," Roe said Monday in a conference call with reporters. "There was no campaign activity involved in any way, shape or form, and there is no justification."

A shadow nonprofit initially paid for the trip, prompting Republicans to accuse Whitmer of trying to "cover up" the trip and allege the nonprofit — initially set up to pay for her inauguration — may have violated federal rules.

But Whitmer’s campaign stepped up to pay for the flight instead after the nonprofit payment prompted an Federal Aviation Administration investigation because the owners were not authorized to sell seats on charter flights.

The jet is owned by three southeast Michigan families with business interests before the state, including the Nicholson family of PVS Chemicals, whose co-chair James Nicholson allowed Whitmer to use the plane, along with the Morouns who own the Ambassador Bridge and Cottons, who are in the managed care business.

In announcing her campaign would pay for the flight, a Whitmer attorney said the arrangement is legal because the private flight was necessitated by security risks related to her elected office, including an alleged kidnapping plot foiled by the FBI in October.

Whitmer could have used taxpayer funds for the flight because of those security needs, attorney Chris Trebilcock wrote in a May 27 email to House Oversight Chairman Steven Johnson, R-Wayland. But having the nonprofit — and now the campaign committee — cover the cost will "lessen the burden on taxpayers, he said. 

Michigan Democratic Party spokesperson Rodericka Applewhaite called the GOP complaint the latest in a line of "partisan attacks" against the governor.

"This is yet another bogus complaint in the MIGOP’s neverending obstruction of Gov. Whitmer’s success in combating COVID-19, while they’ve simultaneously been doing everything in their personal, professional, and legislative capacities to set Michigan backwards, prolong the pandemic," she said in a statement. 

But non-partisan campaign finance watchdogs have also raised concerns about how the flight was paid for and the governor’s lack of transparency when questions first arose. 

Whitmer’s campaign committee will be required to disclose donors, but her initial use of a nonprofit suggests "there was an interest in ensuring this was not publicly disclosed," Simon Schuster, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network told Bridge Michigan last month. 

"If this was truly an action that they believed would play well politically, and it was a necessary expenditure, then a campaign account could have been used from the beginning,” he said. 

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