Baird (HANDOUT PHOTO / The Detroit News)
Lansing— Gov. Rick Snyder added a close confidant to his government payroll this week after coming under political fire for paying him with a secretive private fund, The Detroit News has learned.
The Governor’s Office confirmed late Thursday that Snyder aide Richard Baird became a state government employee on Wednesday, retaining his ambiguous title of “transformation manager.”
In an unusual arrangement, Baird has been working in Snyder’s office since he took office in January 2011 under a $100,000-a-year contract with a nonprofit organization the governor created called New Energy to Reinvent and Diversify, or the NERD Fund.
Baird will be paid $140,000 annually, a salary that is comparable to other senior staff, Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said Thursday.
Wurfel said the governor hopes to end “some of the unnecessary distractions” of Baird’s employment arrangement by adding him to the payroll as a political appointee within the existing staff budget.
“What he’s doing is so invaluable to our team,” Wurfel said.
A retired PricewaterhouseCoopers executive and longtime friend of the governor, Baird already has a state email and office in Snyder’s executive suite in the Romney Building in downtown Lansing.
Wurfel said the reason Baird has been working under a contract for the NERD Fund is because his retirement agreement from the corporate accounting firm prohibited him seeking full-time employment.
But, at Snyder’s request, Baird recently renegotiated his agreement to allow him to become an unclassified state employee, Wurfel said.
Baird was added to the government payroll just days after The News asked the Governor’s Office and Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office on Monday why the state provided Baird with legal representation Oct. 10 when he was deposed in Detroit’s bankruptcy case.
In an earlier state lawsuit challenging Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s appointment, Lansing attorney Peter Ellsworth represented Baird and his company, MI Partners LLC, privately. In the Detroit bankruptcy, Ellsworth represented Baird as a special assistant attorney general, according to a deposition transcript.
Ellsworth referred questions to the Attorney General’s Office, which had not answered The News’ questions as of Thursday night.
The Republican governor has said the NERD Fund was designed to relieve taxpayers of certain expenses, but its use has come under fire from Democrats and government watchdogs who say paying a gubernatorial aide with private money could create conflicts of interests.
Baird has served as Snyder’s lead recruiter, helping lure state Budget Director John Nixon from Utah and Orr from the Washington, D.C., offices of Jones Day, which is now Detroit’s lead bankruptcy law firm.
He also has had a documented role in Snyder’s education initiatives, including the launch of the Education Achievement Authority school reform district in Detroit. Public records show Baird also was involved in setting up a secretive “skunk works” education technology work group that disbanded in April after The News reported its existence.
Baird also helped develop a state employee engagement survey designed to encourage workers to generate ideas for improving government services, Wurfel said.
Under the Internal Revenue Service code, the NERD Fund can accept unlimited anonymous corporate donations and does not have to disclose its individual donors or expenses. Snyder’s office acknowledged last month that the NERD Fund is covering Orr’s $4,200-per-month lodging bills at the Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit and plane flights home to Maryland on weekends.
Snyder and Baird testified under oath in separate depositions last week in Detroit’s bankruptcy case that they don’t know who has donated to the fund. The Governor’s Office has said it’s considering releasing the names of donors or shutting down the NERD Fund altogether.