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Emails: Whitmer's staff weighed in on contact-tracing 'arrangement'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said as soon as she found out about a contract for tracking the spread of COVID-19 that involved a political consultant she canceled it, but newly released emails show her staffers knew a few days earlier.

The emails, which were initially obtained by Bridge Magazine and then posted by the state, included one in which Whitmer Communications Director Zack Pohl and Deputy Communications Director Eileen Belden were informed of an "alternative organizational arrangement" for the contract on April 17.

Under the proposed arrangement, Great Lakes Community Engagement, tied to Democratic consultant Michael Kolehouse, would be tapped to do the work, according to the email. The organization is a "separate business entity that serves nonprofit and corporate clients though owned and staffed by the same individuals," the email says.

Zack Pohl, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's communications director, responds to a proposed organizational arrangement for the state's contact-tracing project.

The department had previously received a "statement of work" from Kolehouse Strategies, an assumed name for the firm K2K Consultants, according to business filings. Kolehouse Strategies would "assist the department with data collection in order to track the spread of COVID-19 and improve public health outcomes," the statement said.

K2K has done consulting work for the Senate Democratic Fund, 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shri Thanedar and the 2018 redistricting reform ballot proposal, Voters Not Politicians, according to campaign finance disclosures.

This year, Fair and Equal Michigan, a proposal campaign looking to expand civil rights protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity, has reported paying K2K $1.1 million for canvass services and signature gathering, according to disclosures.

The new contact tracing arrangement approved by Whitmer's office would include Every Action VAN, a data platform, which is used by nonprofits, instead of NGP VAN, the email added. NGP VAN is often used by Democratic campaigns to track data.

"Yes, that's better," Pohl responded of the proposed "alternative organizational arrangement."

Less than an hour after Pohl's email, Andrea Taverna, senior adviser of opioid strategy with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, sent a message to other department employees to say they had the "green light" from the Executive Office of the Governor.

A television advertisement informs viewers about Michigan's contact-tracing program for trying to stem the spread of COVID-19.

"We got the green light from EOG to move forward with a slightly different organizational arrangement of the contact tracing volunteer work," Taverna wrote. "This would still be working with Mike Kolehouse, so work there isn't lost — it's just organized somewhat differently ..."

Whitmer's administration canceled the $194,000 contract after it received media attention on April 21. Kolehouse wrote in March on Facebook that he hoped President Donald Trump would get "coronavirus ASAP."

The vendor was never approved by the executive office, said Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown, who rejected Friday the idea that Pohl's email represented the governor's approval. 

The contract was approved by officials with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Michigan Public Health Institute, she said.

"The communications director, Zack Pohl, responded to a question in an email about the optics of using a vendor that does work primarily for non-profits," Brown said. "He was not approving a contract. Based on a previous phone conversation, he raised concerns that using a political vendor would be a distraction from the important work that needed to be done."

An employee of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services sends a message on  April 17, 2020, about having the "green light" from the governor's office on a  contact-tracing contract arrangement.

Likewise, during a press conference Thursday, Whitmer said Pohl is "not a person that signs off on state contracts."

"So any interpretation from someone at the department that implied that was part of his role was absolutely incorrect," the governor said.

At another point, she maintained, "When I found out about the contract, I told them to cancel it."

The latest email disclosure has caused a rift with Michigan legislative Republican leaders. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Shane Hernandez, R-Port Huron, has said the contact tracing contract revelations and other actions have eroded the trust the GOP-run Legislature has with Whitmer, a Democrat.  

"When asked about the contract, the administration has denied and distracted from the particulars of what happened, while new information keeps emerging about the role the governor’s office played in securing that contract," Hernandez said in a Wednesday statement.

"... We still have questions about how much data the vendor handled while under contract, what happened to that data, and any other contracts that are in place for political vendors.  I am hopeful that now our remaining questions on contact tracing can be answered and the governor will let the people of Michigan know why statements made in the past on this topic were not clear and factual." 

After Whitmer’s contract cancellation, the state Department of Health and Human Services refused to identify the state employees who chose the contact tracing vendor. When The Detroit News reported the refusal on April 24, the department changed course and identified four HHS staff members specializing in infectious diseases and opioid addiction, including Taverna, as selecting the two Democratic firms to manage the state's coronavirus contact tracing project. 

“Department staff were moving rapidly to expand contact tracing and reduce the loss of life," Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon said at the time. "They believed a firm with substantive experience in organizing volunteers at scale would excel at organizing hundreds of contact tracing volunteers."

Kolehouse signed a state data-use agreement for a project to help volunteers track contacts of those with COVID-19 on April 14, according to a document.

On April 20, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced a contract with "Great Lakes Community Engagement, a firm that specializes in outreach campaigns to engage citizens, and Every Action VAN, a voter/individual contact platform used by non-profits," according to a press release. The governor's administration canceled it a day later.

A stop work order sent to Great Lakes Community Engagement is dated April 21, 2020.

The situation has led to requests for documents from Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature and an investigation by Attorney General Dana Nessel's office.

Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox tweeted this week that Whitmer had been "caught red handed."

"Gretchen Whitmer and her administration lied to Michiganders, and they lied to the press," Cox wrote. "When will the dishonesty and gross incompetence at the cost of taxpayers end?"