Whitmer campaign, not shadow nonprofit, now paying for Florida flight
LANSING—Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's campaign committee will now cover the cost of her March flight to Florida aboard a private jet owned by wealthy business interests, an attorney said Thursday.
The first-term Democrat had initially used a shadow non-profit to pay for the $27,251 flight, but that arrangement prompted an FAA investigation because the jet company was not authorized to operate charter flights.
Attorney Chris Trebilcock, who works as legal counsel for both the Whitmer campaign and the nonprofit, disclosed the new campaign payment arrangement in a May 27 letter to Michigan House Oversight Committee Chairman Steven Johnson, R-Wayland.
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It's the latest twist in a months-long saga over the flight to Florida, which the governor did not disclose until questioned by the media a month later. She eventually acknowledged the flight, which occurred before she was fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and said she went to visit her ailing father.
Republicans accused Whitmer of hypocrisy, citing travel restrictions imposed a year earlier at the onset of the pandemic and more recent recommendations by her administration against traveling out of state.
But more recently, critics also have accused Whitmer of a "cover up" and alleged that payments by the nonprofit — initially set up to pay for her inauguration — may have violated federal rules.
Johnson, who has signaled he may hold hearings on Whitmer’s flight to Florida, had given the governor until Thursday morning to respond to 43 questions he sent to her office last week.
“We are glad the governor has finally admitted some level of wrongdoing,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately it shouldn't have taken our letter for the governor to own up to her mistakes. There are still unanswered questions that need to be answered.”
In a response letter to Johnson, Whitmer's campaign attorney Thursday laid out new details about the trip and how the governor ended up flying on a private jet co-owned by a trio of wealthy business families who have traditionally donated to Republican politicians.
According to Trebilcock, an aide in Whitmer's office first contacted PVS Chemicals on or around March 8 to inquire whether the Detroit-based company had an aircraft that could fly the governor down to Florida.
Whitmer's team pursued a non-commercial flight for security reasons because of "extraordinary threats to her life," the attorney said, citing an alleged militia kidnapping plot the FBI foiled in October.
Given the governor’s itinerary, PVS arranged for the flight to depart on March 12 and return March 15, according to the campaign. The governor flew to Florida with her security detail, and she was joined on the return trip by her two daughters, who had been "helping manage her father's health issues for several weeks" while taking virtual classes online, Trebilcock said.
Four days after the flight, a Whitmer aide asked PVS about the cost of the flight, and the Michigan Transition 2019 nonprofit later paid the $27,521 bill, according to the letter.
"At the time the payment was issued, both PVS and Michigan Transition 2019 believed that the payment was being made in compliance with all applicable laws," Trebilcock wrote.
But as The Detroit Free Press first reported on May 17, and as PVS told the nonprofit that same day, FAA rules do not allow the Air Eagle LLC jet company to receive payments for chartered flights.
Air Eagle 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.
In a statement Thursday, PVS President David Nicholson confirmed that company board co-chair James Nicholson granted the governor’s office request for use of the aircraft.
"We were told this was out of concern for the governor’s security, as she had received threats on her life," he said. "In the future, PVS will follow a newly-created policy to deny all requests to fly candidates or government officials."
FAA rules include an exception that allows campaign committees to reimburse flight operators like Air Eagle, so the campaign will pay instead, Trebilcock said. He noted Whitmer will still voluntarily reimburse the campaign for “an amount equivalent to first-class commercial tickets for herself and her daughters."
Initially, Whitmer’s office said she had reimbursed the nonprofit $855 for the cost of her seat. Robert Leddy, Whitmer’s spokesperson, told Bridge Michigan last week that the amount “is on par with the cost of a first-class commercial flight ticket.”
Under state law, campaign committees can pay for expenses "incurred in carrying out the business of an elective office," and Trebilcock argued the flight qualifies because Whitmer would not have had security concerns were it not for her position as governor.
Whitmer could have used taxpayer funds for the flight because of those security needs, he wrote, but having the nonprofit — and now the campaign committee — cover the cost will "lessen the burden on taxpayers."
Trebilcock cited an April 15 interpretive statement from Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s Office, which said that elected officials can use campaign funds to cover security costs that arise “as a result of their status as an office holder.”
Critics, however, questioned the legality of the campaign expense.
"There was no executive or campaign purpose to go to Florida," Chris Gustafson of the Republican Governors Association wrote on Twitter. "There was no legitimate reason to use campaign dollars to pay for her daughters to fly private from Florida. This is corruption."
State Rep. Kevin Hertel, D-St. Clair Shores, sought the Secretary of State interpretive statement late last year, months before Whitmer’s flight. At the time, he was curious whether lawmakers could use campaign funds to cover security expenses, he said, noting some legislators had begun wearing bulletproof vests in the wake of armed militia protests at the Capitol.
Personal security equipment “is essentially an incidental office expense,” Hertel said.
He declined to weigh in on the Whitmer campaign’s reliance on that interpretative statement to justify paying for the governor’s flight, calling it a matter for “the Secretary of State to decide.”
While Whitmer's campaign committees will be required to disclose donors, her initial use of a nonprofit suggests "there was an interest in ensuring this was not publicly disclosed," said Simon Schuster, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a political watchdog group.
"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."
Whitmer's campaign also paid for her January flight to Washington D.C. for Democratic President Joe Biden's inauguration, Trebilcock disclosed in Thursday’s letter.
The governor flew on a private plane operated by New Hudson-based Solomon Plumbing Company, a firm based in Lyon Township, he said. The flight cost $22,670 and will be reported on Whitmer's next campaign finance report, which will cover the first six months of the year.
According to Michigan campaign finance records, the president of Solomon Plumbing Company is Danielle Allor, who in 2019 donated $2,500 to the Whitmer campaign, but most recently has donated to Republican candidates.
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