Michigan lawmaker: Committee should seek contact-tracing emails

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A Michigan lawmaker says a new oversight committee should seek "all correspondence" among members of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration concerning a canceled contract for the state's COVID-19 contact tracing project.

Rep. Shane Hernandez, R-Port Huron, made the suggestion in a Friday letter to Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, who's chairman of the Republican-controlled Legislature's new Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Rep. Shane Hernandez, R-Port Huron

"I am very concerned about the decision-making and contract awarding processes that are in effect for this administration during these times, and the ramifications of these types of no-bid contracts," Hernandez wrote. "I am also concerned about the transparency involved in this decision-making and the potential for data being collected by partisan actors."

Hernandez sent the letter after receiving a data-use agreement between the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Great Lakes Community Engagement Strategies, a firm tied to a Democratic consultant and that initially received a $194,000 contract for the project.

The department provided the document at Hernandez's request.

The data-use agreement for a project to help volunteers track contacts of those with COVID-19 was signed by Michael Kolehouse, a Democratic consultant on behalf of Great Lakes Community Engagement Strategies, on April 14, according to the agreement.

A portion of a data-use agreement between the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Great Lakes Community Engagement is pictured.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced April 20 that it was contracting with Great Lakes Community Engagement and Every Action VAN, a voter/individual contact platform used by nonprofits, to provide software to help organize remote phone banking and track information and contacts.

Every Action’s CEO Stu Trevelyan is also chief executive of NGP VAN, according to his Twitter profile. Every Action primarily works with nonprofits while NGP VAN bills itself as the “leading technology provider to Democratic and progressive campaigns and organizations.”

Multiple reporters began looking into an alleged deal between the state and NGP VAN before April 20 after training materials surfaced featuring NGP VAN.

A "contact tracing training" document includes the phrase "powered by NGP VAN."

On April 16 — two days after the data use agreement — Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, told The Detroit News the state had been reviewing software options for an enhanced contract tracing project. But no final decisions had been made, she said when asked about NGP VAN's involvement.

On Friday, Sutfin noted that the data-use agreement was different than the finalized contract, which was signed April 20.

"The department entered this contract in order to reduce the loss of life from Coronavirus by expanding contact tracing," Robert Gordon, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, wrote in a letter to Hernandez. "We believed that a firm with substantive experience in organizing volunteers at scale would excel at organizing hundreds of contact tracing volunteers. In retrospect, it would have been better to choose a different firm, but we were moving quickly in an effort to save lives.

"I have attached both the contract and the data use agreement. As you will see, the DUA (data-use agreement) included multiple terms, both standard and specific to this project, to ensure the security of the data and its proper use."

On  April 22, the state canceled the contract for coronavirus contact tracing after reporters inquired about the agreements. Whitmer called the deal an unnecessary distraction.

Whitmer said previously the Department of Health and Human Services didn't follow the proper channels to get approval from the state's Emergency Operations Center. 

"The Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t have a political bone in their theoretical body," Whitmer said. "When it was brought to my attention, I told them to cancel it. This was an unnecessary distraction. Leadership is about solving problems. The correct process was not followed."

Hall, the chair of the joint select committee, issued a statement about Hernandez's letter Friday, saying Whitmer's account of the situation raised concerns.

"The committee will look into the evidence submitted today," Hall added.

Michigan  Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, has opened an investigation into the matter.

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.