Senator cries 'stonewalling' as Michigan HHS staffers won't testify on Dem consultant's contract

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Two state health department staff members involved in the awarding of a no-bid contract to a Democratic consulting firm will not testify before the Legislature's Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic. 

The Republican-led committee had asked Department of Health and Human Services senior adviser on opioid strategy Andrea Taverna and HIV/STD programs division director Kathryn Macomber to testify on a contract cancelled in April for the development of a contact tracing program through a Democratic consultant and data management firm. 

But in a Wednesday letter to the Legislature, Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon said both employees had declined the request and said he could instead answer written questions.

"Due to the open attorney general investigation, which was requested from the Legislature, Ms. Macomber and Ms. Taverna do not believe it is appropriate to speak with the committee at this time," Gordon wrote in his Wednesday letter. 

Taverna also declined to answer questions during an auditor general investigation into the contract with Democratic consultant Mike Kolehouse and NGP Van to manage volunteers and contact tracing data. She instead referred questions to her attorney.

Auditors said Wednesday Taverna also declined to speak with Attorney General Dana Nessel's office in her review of the contract. Taverna is not considered a state employee since she is contracted for hire through the Michigan Public Health Institute, but Macomber is, auditors said.

Last week, Gordon testified for roughly two hours on the contract, but legislators argued Wednesday that there were questions regarding the contract that only Taverna and Macomber could answer. 

"There were a number of questions he could not answer because he was not the individual working on this contract," said GOP Rep. Matt Hall, the Marshall Republican who chairs the committee. "We’re very disappointed they won’t come here and answer questions of this committee and we will continue to try to get them to come in.”

Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, questioned auditors testifying Wednesday regarding the incidence of state employees who declined to answer questions in an audit.

Audit Division Administrator Steven Koschay said, in his 34 years with the office, he'd never had personal experience with a state employee who declined an interview but said it has happened before. 

Legislators needed more information on the contract but there is "a lot of stonewalling" as lawmakers attempted to gather the information, said Nesbitt, vice chairman for the committee.

"There’s a criminal investigation and involved personnel are refusing to testify before the auditor general, the attorney general and this committee," he said. "If everything was proper," those employees wouldn't hesitate to testify.

Gordon argued that he'd already answered many of the Legislature's pressing questions on the contract. 

Robert Gordon

"...while the canceled contract was a mistake, department staff were aiming to save lives in a period of mind-boggling challenge," Gordon said in his letter. "Politics had nothing to do with it. The vendor was capable and the contract reasonable."

The contract with Kolehouse's Great Lakes Community Engagement and NGP Van was canceled before any money was paid to either outfit, the state said. Protected health information was not shared and volunteer information obtained by NGP Van was destroyed last week

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer canceled the contract soon after it was announced after media and Republicans asked about the firms' political connections. Whitmer said she was unaware of the contract and it did not go through the typical approval process through the State Emergency Operations Center. 

The committee has also asked former Labor and Economic Opportunity senior adviser Ed Duggan to testify since he recommended Kolehouse to Taverna for the contact tracing effort.