Records: Michigan senator helped steer $25M Clare grant now under investigation
- Michigan health department awarded $25 million grant to former legislative aide after talks with state Sen. Rick Outman, lobbyist
- Outman denied knowing the ex-staffer was directly involved but named him in voicemail to state official
- Grant was later frozen amid an ongoing internal investigation into potential double payments
LANSING — A state senator and a lobbyist intervened to help a former legislative staffer obtain a $25 million grant that is now under investigation by Attorney General Dana Nessel for possible prosecution, records obtained by Bridge Michigan show.
The records shed new light on how a no-bid grant was awarded to a nonprofit created and run by Dave Coker, who chaired the Clare County GOP last year and once worked for them-House Speaker Jason Wentworth.
State Sen. Rick Outman acknowledged to Bridge he phoned state health officials on behalf of the project, but maintained he had no idea that Coker would benefit.
“I would have never been for that because, again, it goes against the way I think a project gotta go down,” said Outman, R-Six Lakes, who owns an excavating firm and is familiar with competitive bidding.
The focus of the ongoing attorney general investigation is unclear, but state health officials stopped payment on the grant this year, citing possible “duplicate” payments involving Coker’s nonprofit as well as a for-profit consulting firm he owns.
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Coker had little health care or development experience before securing the grant, but he previously worked as an aide to Wentworth, who added the funding to last year’s state budget.
Before the grant was frozen, Coker’s nonprofit paid $3.5 million to buy land from a family company of state Rep. Tom Kunse, a Clare Republican who succeeded Wentworth in the Legislature. Kunse has also publicly questioned the grant.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, Bridge Michigan obtained records that show the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services awarded the money to a nonprofit formed by Coker last year, Complete Health Park, after inquiries from Outman and lobbyist Karla Ruest, a former health department staffer.
The pair began contacting state health officials two months before the state finalized payments in December, the records show.
After the budget was signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in July, health officials could not figure out the intended recipient of the grant, calling it a "lingering mystery." Lawmakers typically direct the grants using vague language and this one was intended for an unnamed nonprofit in Clare County.
Erin Emerson, a state health official, told the lobbyist Ruest in an October email that she was happy the lobbyist was helping because staffers were "struggling to place the intended grantee from the language alone."
Then, after talking with Ruest and Outman, state staffers determined that Coker’s nonprofit was the intended recipient.
In an October voicemail obtained by Bridge, Outman told Emerson he wanted to discuss the project that “Karla (Ruest) and Dave Coker had referenced.”
Outman acknowledged he had talked to Coker about the project and thought it would benefit rural Clare. Outman said he welcomes the Nessel investigation.
“They can figure it out. You know, who was at fault,” said Outman, who chaired the health department budget subcommittee.
Nonetheless, Outman’s call and Ruest’s intervention got attention from state health officials and may have helped move along the project, records show.
Emerson forwarded Outman’s voicemail to Ramiro Galván, the health department's legislative liaison, who later connected with Outman on Oct. 13 and "confirmed the intended recipient,” Emerson told colleagues in a Nov. 15 email.
"It took a long while to identify the intended recipient of this funding," Emerson said of the $25 million grant, which was among more than $1 billion in earmarks lawmakers added to the state budget signed by Whitmer.
Several of the earmarks have proven controversial because they went to politically connected recipients for pet projects and did not require a competitive bidding process.
While Wentworth was instrumental in writing the $25 million project into the state budget, the term-limited Farwell Republican has denied any effort to steer the money toward Coker, his former aide.
The Clare health park grant “came directly from the Speaker’s Office,” Emerson said, referencing Wentworth, but “they initially said it didn't have a specific partner in mind”.
Ruest, the lobbyist, apparently helped them solve the mystery. She “disagreed” with Wentworth’s office that there was no “intended recipient” for the Clare health project grant, prompting the call from Outman, Emerson wrote in her Nov. 15 email.
"I reached out to Karla to get a contact... and the team has been rocking and rolling since that time,” Emerson explained.
Outman told Bridge that Ruest “kept getting with” his office in hopes of informing the health department that the grant was supposed to go to Complete Health Care.
By December, the state health department had moved to authorize initial payments to Coker’s nonprofit because, as one official put it in an email to colleagues, he was "both well connected politically and a bit antsy."
The state health department froze the grant funding in March 2023, citing “red flags,” including possible “duplicate” payments to Coker, whose nonprofit had paid his for-profit consulting firm more than $820,000 within days of the contract.
By then, Coker’s nonprofit had spent $10 million of the grant.
Coker didn’t return messages seeking comment from Bridge.
Wentworth’s spokesperson issued a statement saying he wasn’t aware of the attorney general investigation but he would welcome a “proper investigation… (so) the truth can come out and the proper parties can be held accountable in this matter if wrongdoing has occurred.”
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