State: Contact tracing volunteer data now scrubbed from Dem firm's program

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A Democratic data platform has deleted any remaining contact information it had for volunteers who had entered their names, emails and phone numbers into its program before the state of Michigan canceled a contract with the company. 

The data was destroyed Thursday afternoon, a state spokesman said, hours after the department's director told lawmakers he was unsure whether the information was still on the data platform.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Bob Wheaton said the department received confirmation Thursday evening that the information had been scrubbed from the NGP VAN site. He was unable to say how many volunteers had used the system or when their information eventually was pulled. 

State Health Director Robert Gordon told the Legislature's Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic during a Thursday morning two-hour hearing that "we have requested the destruction of the data and that request to my knowledge is pending."

Gordon had told lawmakers at the hearing that up to 2,000 volunteers had been given a link to NGP Van, a Democratic data platform, in April, when the state was finalizing a contract with the firm to organize volunteers to contact people exposed to COVID-19 to slow the spread of the virus. 

Robert Gordon

But the contract was canceled less than a week after volunteers were provided NGP Van's link when the firm's Democratic ties came under scrutiny by media and Republican groups. The original contracted companies are run by a Democratic consultant who said he hoped President Donald Trump would get "coronavirus ASAP."

There was a data use agreement in place that protected information obtained about the individuals contacted, but the agreement did not cover the volunteers, who were asked to provide their names, email addresses and phone numbers to NGP Van, Gordon said.

There was a privacy agreement volunteers clicked that banned some uses of the volunteer information, said Gordon, who leads the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

But the assurance was little comfort to GOP lawmakers.

"People across Michigan signed up to volunteer for this contact tracing program thinking they were helping in the fight we’re all in against COVID-19," said Rep. Matt Hall, the Marshall Republican who chairs the committee. "But they were instead led to a site with Democratic affiliation and their information is now in the possession of a political consulting firm that can potentially use it for political purposes."

The NGP VAN link that was included in the training presentation given to volunteers appears to lead to a window in which volunteers create an account or "ActionID" to gain access to the firm's phone-banking system, called OpenVPB" or Open Virtual Phone Bank," according to a copy of the training materials reviewed by The News.

The ActionID interface asks users to create a password and input their email address, first and last name and phone number.

Volunteers also are required to click a box saying they agree with privacy terms. The terms prohibit the selling of personal information, but allows use of the information by the company to communicate with the account user, for legal purposes, or "to perform data analytics."

Whitmer canceled the roughly $194,000 no-bid contract after widespread criticism of the contract in April. Whitmer said the contract wasn't approved through the State Emergency Operations Center. 

The contract had been made with a firm tied to Democratic consultant Mike Kolehouse, who planned to use NGP Van to organize volunteers and had posted on Facebook in March that he hoped the Republican president would get "coronavirus ASAP."

Since Michigan is under a state of emergency, the state could issue no-bid contracts because it was exempted from soliciting bids prior to awarding the contract.

The contract, the department said, was a decision made by the state's epidemiologist, Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo; senior adviser of opioid strategy Andrea Taverna; HIV/STD programs division director Kathryn Macomber; and Joe Coyle, section manager in the state's communicable disease division.

Taverna, a former chief of staff to the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration, would not answer questions in a recent auditor general review of the contract and instead referred auditors to her lawyer. 

Gordon told lawmakers Thursday that the contract was a mistake made in the middle of a "terrifying surge" in cases, but he denied there were political motivations behind the decision. 

The contract was a mistake not because the firm wasn't capable of doing the job, but because of the appearance it created and the time the furor over the canceled contract has since stolen from the department, he said. 

"Rather than judging MDHHS on this one flawed effort, I ask you to judge us on the totality of our work," said Gordon, who was an official in the Obama administration's Department of Education and Office of Management and Budget.  

Kolehouse was first recommended to Taverna by then-Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity senior adviser Ed Duggan. Duggan, son of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, left LEO in July to work of Vice President Joe Biden's Democratic presidential campaign in Michigan.

Duggan's advice was "sought out," Gordon said, because the team was seeking a firm with experience in political field organizing and thought Duggan might know of some options. 

Duggan on March 25 recommended Kolehouse to Taverna as someone who "does some organizing and can help on some efforts," according to emails obtained The News

Duggan had been contacted by Kolehouse about a week earlier on March 19 about issues Kolehouse encountered when his employees attempted to file unemployment claims, according to emails obtained by The News

"Please keep me in the loop on what is happening so I can keep them up to date," Kolehouse wrote. 

Duggan moved Kolehouse's request to the Unemployment Insurance Agency's legislative liaison and a division administrator to get the problem resolved as the state's unemployment system struggled to keep up with the rapid uptick in unemployment claims spurred by the pandemic. 

"Got it, Will be done Monday," UIA Tax & Employer Services Director Daryl Hunter responded to Duggan on March 22. 

In the days following the March 25 recommendation, the state conversed with Kolehouse about their needs, and Kolehouse eventually submitted a statement of work that led to a contract. 

Before the contract was finalized, volunteers were given training information with the link to NGP Van included in it. Volunteers with political background knew the firm's background and contacted the media, Gordon said. 

When inquiries about the contract began to come in, HHS staff met with the governor's communications staff to discuss response, Gordon said. Staff members decided moving the data to Every Action VAN, the nonprofit arm of NGP VAN, and contracting with a separate Kolehouse entity called Great Lakes Community Engagement might assuage some of the concerns. 

The Department of Health and Human Services was trying to preserve the work already done, Gordon said, but he realizes "it was not an adequate response."

"The period in which this was occurring was during a terrifying surge in the virus," he said, noting it was around the time the department began to see the disparate impact the virus had on African American individuals. 

"We were doing our damndest to respond in every way we could," Gordon said.