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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Whitmer pledged openness. Lately, silence is default for Michigan governor

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wouldn’t answer questions about who paid for a private jet trip to Florida during an event Thursday in Clare about roads. (Bridge Michigan photo by Sergio Martínez-Beltrán)

Aug. 31: Memo: Whitmer staff reviews FOIA requests, even though she’s exempt from law
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 — Three years after becoming governor on a pledge to increase transparency, Gretchen Whitmer is under fire yet again for keeping secrets.

As a gubernatorial candidate in 2018, the Democrat unveiled the Michigan Sunshine Plan, which she said would “rewrite the rules in Lansing to work for regular families by making the state government more open, transparent and accountable to Michigan taxpayers.”

Nothing has come of the plan, though, or Whitmer’s pledge to open the governor’s office to the state’s Freedom of Information Act — and she’s under scrutiny for the second time in several weeks for being less than transparent.

 

Whitmer’s latest controversy involves a recent trip she made to Florida to visit her father, Richard Whitmer. He was fully vaccinated but Whitmer was not, according to her office. Around the time of her trip, her administration encouraged people not to travel to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

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Whitmer didn’t initially disclose the trip, and has since refused to provide basic details about it. Now, recent news articles report she traveled on a private jet owned by three wealthy Detroit-area political donors, after asking to borrow the plane.

Whitmer refused to discuss the trip when asked Thursday about it by Bridge Michigan. Her office will not confirm where she traveled, and has ignored three requests from Bridge about when or if her lieutenant governor, Garlin Gilchrist II, served as interim governor when Whitmer was out of state.

“We don't discuss my travels. I have received an incredible number of death threats over the last year and a half,” Whitmer said at a media event in Clare. “There are a lot of reasons that we don't discuss how I travel and when I travel, and … that's all I'm gonna say at this point.”

The flap comes two months after The Detroit News uncovered a secret, $155,000 severance to Whitmer’s former health director, Robert Gordon. The payout included a clause that he eventually waived that required him to stay quiet about the circumstances of his January resignation.

In the past 12 months, Whitmer also has received criticism for being slow to release identifying records about the pandemic’s impact on nursing homes and records on school outbreaks. Whitmer released details on both after Bridge wrote weeks of stories about her refusal to release the records.

To opponents, such as Republican National Committee spokesperson Preya Samsundar, the plane controversy and other incidents prove that “transparency is long overdue — it’s time for Gretchen Whitmer to tell the truth.”

Democrat backers such as state Rep. David LaGrand of Grand Rapids said the media should stay out of Whitmer’s private life. 

He said she has a strong record on transparency and deserves praise for a recent policy that eliminates some non-disclosure agreements.

“There are a number of things that I think she has a right to privacy on, and there are things that are going to fall into the middle category,” LaGrand said. 

In fact, Whitmer issued the policy only after Republicans and other lawmakers raised a fuss over what they called a “hush money” severance to Gordon and a previously undisclosed, $85,872 separation agreement to former Unemployment Insurance Agency Director Steve Gray. 

This week, the state House voted unanimously to limit separation agreements to prevent those sorts of deals.

‘Specter of quid pro quo’

While Whitmer’s office won’t say when she went to Florida, her public calendar lists events on every week day and every Sunday in March, except on March 13-14.  

Flight logs list a twin-engine business jet departing from Lansing’s Capital Region International Airport that left for Palm Beach on March 12 and returned March 15. Whitmer’s father owns a condominium in West Palm Beach, records show.

Records show the aircraft is registered to Air Eagle LLC, which shares a Detroit address with PVS Chemicals, owned by James Nicholson. 

Nicholson is one of the biggest Republican donors in the state. According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, Nicholson has donated a total of $241,975 to the House Republican Campaign Committee since 2011.

The other co-owners of the jet are the Cotton family, the former owners of Meridian Health, and the Moroun family, which owns the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit to Windsor.

Since 2011, the Moroun and Cotton families have donated a total of $633,975 to the House Republican Campaign Committee. Members of the Cotton family also donated a combined $27,200 to Whitmer’s 2018 campaign.

Jon Cotton, the ex-president of Meridian Health Plan and now CEO of ApexHealth, told Bridge Michigan that “no one from the Cotton family was aware of the governor’s trip on the airplane.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Moroun family, said the family was “not asked and was not aware the governor used an Air Eagle aircraft to fly to Florida to visit her father.”

Bridge Michigan sent an email to the executive assistant of James Nicholson for comment, but there was no response.  

The families’ businesses have a financial stake in state and federal policy.

The Moroun family has spent years trying to stop construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge, which is expected to open in 2024 and end the Ambassador Bridge’s monopoly on truck traffic at the Windsor border.

PVS Chemicals, a global company, is a member of the American Chemistry Council, which reported spending nearly $14,000 on lobbying efforts in Michigan last year.

ApexHealth is a Medicare Advantage managed care company that sells private insurance to supplement government offerings.

The revelations “raise the specter of a quid pro quo kind of situation,” said Steve Delie, an attorney with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank that is suing the state to release records about COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes.

“It could create the appearance of impropriety, and that is something that generally would be wise to avoid even if it is not a legal problem,” said Delie, who is also the executive director of the for the Michigan Coalition for Open Government. (Disclosure: Bridge senior editor David Zeman is a board member of the group.)

There is no indication that Whitmer’s trip violated any law or state policy.

Whitmer’s office has constantly cited security concerns when declining to comment on her trip. Last year, the FBI arrested members of a Michigan militia on claims they were planning on kidnapping Whitmer. 

Delie said Whitmer may have a legitimate reason to withhold some details about the trip, but “I think it’s important for the public to know certain things.”

“She cited ongoing security concerns for her schedule, and I think you can make that argument for her current and future schedule, but I think it's much harder to make that argument for things that have already happened,” he said. “Not a lot of security threats can happen backwards in time.”

‘Unforced errors’

Whitmer is up for re-election next year, and it’s unclear whether the issues will impact her chances, experts said.

“Generally when people hear that someone is unwilling to release something, it creates this question of ‘why?,’” said Joseph Hamm, an associate professor at Michigan State University who specializes in trust in institutions. 

“It creates this question of ‘what are you not willing to tell me?’” 

Republicans have yet to recruit a high-profile candidate to challenge Whitmer, but her recent struggles have opened the door for a successful "change" campaign, said John Sellek of Harbor Strategic, who worked for 2018 GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Schuette, who lost to Whitmer.

"One of the few political norms that have remained true even in the Trump era or the COVID era is that when your opponent is self-destructing, you don't get in their way," Sellek said.  

“That may sound harsh, but that's what's going on with Gov. Whitmer right now,” Sellek said. 

“She's had a number of unforced errors.”

Democratic consultant Adrian Hemond said the issue may give Republicans an opening to attack Whitmer, but it’s unlikely to hurt her politically in the long run.

“The only way it continues to be a story is if you keep talking about it,” said Hemond of Grassroots Midwest in Lansing.

“That would be the advice I would give the governor … just stop talking.”  

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