Whitmer: Controversial COVID-19 contract killed as 'unnecessary distraction'

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wouldn't say Wednesday who within the state health department approved a controversial state COVID-19 contract, but she canceled it as an "unnecessary distraction" from Michigan's COVID-19 fight.

Whitmer's answer prompted demands from Republicans for more information about the contract's approval process. The original contracted companies are run by a Democratic consultant who said a month ago on Facebook that he hoped President Donald Trump would get "coronavirus ASAP."

The state pulled a contract with Democratic firms Great Lakes Community Engagement and EveryAction VAN for coronavirus contact tracing late Tuesday after reporters inquired about the agreements. Republican groups raised concerns about the contracting process and the potential for that data to be used by Democratic operatives.

During a Wednesday news briefing, Whitmer said the state Department of Health and Human Services selected a vendor for the state contact tracing project that it thought was best, but 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," she 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."

Following the news briefing, the Michigan Republican Party called for the release of all state emails related to the awarding of the contract, saying Whitmer could not "simply plead ignorance."

“The people of Michigan have a right to know how the governor and her staff are handling this crisis," said party Chairwoman Laura Cox, a former state House Appropriations chair. "If the governor won’t answer these questions for us, maybe her administration's emails will."

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey is "disappointed" about the governor's "cavalier" response regarding the use of the Democratic firms, said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for the Clarklake Republican.

"This is critical personal health data that was seemingly going to be given to an entity for political gain," McCann said. 

The awarding of the contract and its abrupt cancellation raise questions about why an existing state-approved contractor wasn't used or whether other similarly questionable contracts have been approved in the midst of the pandemic, State Rep. Shane Hernandez said.

"That’s information we’re going to be asking for," said the Port Huron Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. 

The state has deferred to June a few Freedom of Information Act requests by The Detroit News related to the crisis under an executive order issued by Whitmer allowing for the deferment. 

Whitmer made no indication about whether an investigation is being done or when health officials might disclose who made the final decision. 

The State Emergency Operations Center will make an announcement when a new vendor is chosen and one will be chosen “post haste," Whitmer said. 

While she doesn’t think the Department of Health and Human Services, headed by Director Robert Gordon, made a political decision, "I know that it’s important to take out any speculation, any concern.”

Whitmer was uncertain how much data the vendors had access to before she ended the contract, but the state health department later indicated no data was collected because the project had not yet begun. 

"There were meetings, calls and other business development conducted to discuss the state’s contact tracing needs and what a contact tracing project could entail," said Lynn Sutfin, a department spokeswoman. "There was not, however, access provided to individual data about individuals with COVID-19 or their contacts. "

Contact tracing, Whitmer added, is an "essential part of how we're going to save lives and reboot our economy." Contact tracing involves identifying people with whom an infected COVID-19 individual has come in contact to help determine the spread of the potentially deadly virus.

"I made that decision, we are moving forward and the appropriate people understand the flaw and that will not be repeated," she said. 

The $194,250 contract with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services would have tasked Great Lakes Community Engagement with outreach and  EveryAction VAN with data management. 

The contract with Great Lakes Community Engagement was signed Monday, but the contract language indicates the work start date was April 1 and the end date was June 1.

Great Lakes Community Engagement is connected with Grand Rapids-based K2K Consulting and Kolehouse Strategies. Those companies are run by Democratic consultant Mike Kolehouse, who said in a March 27 Facebook post that he hoped Trump would get "coronavirus ASAP."

"Can someone do the country a favor and cough on that man," Kolehouse wrote. 

EveryAction had been contracted with the state through a third party called Great Lakes Community Engagement, which specializes in outreach campaigns.

NGP VAN bills itself as the “leading technology provider to Democratic and progressive campaigns and organizations.” It has provided campaign services to several state and national Democratic candidates, including Whitmer's 2018 gubernatorial campaign, according to state records.