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Bridge Michigan
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Records: Shadow nonprofit paid for Whitmer’s Florida flight amid controversy

Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s chief of staff says she’s to blame for not releasing details sooner about a private flight to Florida amid the pandemic.

June 7: Michigan Republicans seek campaign finance probe of Whitmer trip to Florida
June 2: GOP to governor: Tell us when you leave Michigan. Whitmer: Stop wasting time.
May 27: Whitmer campaign, not shadow nonprofit, now paying for Florida flight

LANSING — One week after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she was done talking about her trip to Florida on a private jet owned by wealthy businessmen, her office revealed Friday that a nonprofit connected to her paid for the chartered flight.

On Friday, documents were posted online showing a nonprofit established to pay for Whitmer’s inauguration,  Michigan Transition 2019, paid $27,251 for the jet that flew from Lansing to Palm Beach, Florida, on March 12 and returned March 15.

 

The nonprofit paid for the fight in the first two weeks of May, several weeks into the controversy about her travels, records show. 

Related:

Also Friday, the governor’s office released a memo sent to senior staffers by the governor’s chief of staff, JoAnne Huls, that disclosed financial details of the trip and took the blame for not revealing them sooner.

“As chief of staff, I acknowledge we could have done a better job of answering questions about this trip with more clarity while also balancing the need to protect the governor’s security, and for that I take responsibility,” Huls wrote.

“Going forward, we will stay laser-focused on vaccinating more Michiganders so we can jumpstart our economy and get back to normal sooner.”

Huls wrote that Whitmer “paid for her seat on the flight with her own personal money.” The nonprofit posted voluntary disclosures showing Whitmer had reimbursed it $855.

The trip, which came as Whitmer’s administration warned against traveling during the pandemic, wasn’t initially disclosed by the governor and came to light after the media reported on it.

But the disclosure leaves many questions unanswered, including how Whitmer may have ended up using a twin-engine jet registered to Air Eagle LLC, which is owned by three families with extensive business before the state.

 

The plane is co-owned by the family of James Nicholson, which owns PVS Chemicals in Detroit, the Cotton family, the former owners of Meridian Health, and the Moroun family that owns the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit to Windsor.

Deadline Detroit has reported that Whitmer solicited the flight from the plane’s owners. Representatives for the Cottons and Morouns have told Bridge Michigan they were unaware of the flight, while a spokesperson for Nicholson has not returned messages seeking comment.

In her Friday memo, Huls didn’t say how Whitmer chose the flight, but wrote that “due to ongoing security and public health concerns, we made a decision to use a chartered flight for this trip.

“The governor's flight was not a gift, not paid for at taxpayer expense, and was done in compliance with the law,” Huls wrote.

Tory Sachs, the executive director of Michigan Rising Action, a conservative advocacy group, blasted Whitmer’s actions.

"Today's revelations that Whitmer's nonprofit paid for her personal trip to Florida is shady and makes it clear why she tried to hide the trip and cover up who paid," said Sachs, who questioned whether nonprofit rules allowed the personal expense.

Ted Goodman, communications director of the Michigan Republican Party, questioned the timing of the release and said the disclosure raises "additional questions and concerns." 

Recent disclosures

The nonprofit that paid for the trip was formed in November 2018 a day before Whitmer, a Democrat, defeated Republican Bill Schuette. It is funded by some of the biggest corporations in the state. 

The organization is led by Lisa Canada, the political director of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, according to records. A request for comment to the council was not returned.

Since Whitmer took office, the nonprofit has been used to pay for more than $1 million in the governor’s expenses, including nearly $60,000 on travel, $209,000 on consulting, nearly $60,000 on travel and $412,000 on office expenses, according to voluntary disclosure statements.

The group was set up as a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit, which can accept unlimited corporate donations. By law, the nonprofit isn’t required to disclose donors — but it appears the organization’s website recently added information on donors and expenses. 

A January 2021 archived version of the nonprofit's website shows that it did not list donors or expenses at that time, as it currently does on a “Sunshine” page that now lists financial transactions back to 2018 and through May 2021, including information about the Florida flight.

That disclosure statement also shows the $27,521 travel expense, which came two months after Whitmer traveled to Florida.

Simon Schuster, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, told Bridge Michigan that the organization’s structure makes it hard to know where the money is coming from and going.

"We have a very very slim picture of this organization's finances from the information they provide,” Schuster said. “It's like saying that you're disclosing an elephant, and showing a picture of its trunk."

Most of the funding — $1.5 million — "carried over" from a 2019 inauguration fund. Top donors since then included Chemical Bank ($50,000), the Michigan Credit Union League ($50,000), AT&T ($25,000) and Charter Communications ($25,000).

"We don't have any disclosures about what went on in 2018 when they received the bulk of their cash,” Schuster said. “Really, we're just getting vague categorizations of where the money is and how the money is flowing out of the organization.”

Similar nonprofit troubles

Former Gov. Rick Snyder came under fire for his use of a nonprofit in 2014, when it was revealed the fund paid the salary of adviser Rich Baird and living expenses for Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, who the governor hired to steer the city through bankruptcy.

Snyder closed the fund in 2014 and replaced it with a new version that, like the Whitmer nonprofit is now doing, voluntarily disclosed donors in an attempt to quell questions about potential influence and conflicts of interest. 

Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy referred questions about the nonprofit to attorney Chris Trebilcock of Clark Hill PLC, who did not immediately respond to questions emailed by Bridge Michigan.

In her memo, Whitmer’s chief of staff, Huls, said the governor is going out of her way to be transparent, noting that she posted her tax return Friday online.

“While this administration continues to make state government more open and accessible, I want to acknowledge that we must continue holding ourselves to a high ethical standard,” Huls wrote.

Huls wrote that Whitmer traveled to Florida to care for her father, who has a chronic condition and whose health has since deteriorated and returned to Michigan for treatment.

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