State has 'complete confidence' in 4 employees who chose COVID-19 vendors

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Four Michigan Department of Health and Human Services staff members specializing in infectious diseases and opioid addiction were involved in selecting two Democratic firms to manage the state's coronavirus contact tracing project, according to a statement late Friday night by the department. 

"In retrospect, it would have been better to choose a different firm, but we have been working around the clock to save lives," said Robert Gordon, director of the Department of Health and Human Services.

"I have complete confidence in these individuals’ commitment to protecting the health of Michiganders, and am grateful for their continuing public service," he said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer canceled the contract a day after it was announced when reporters began questioning the firms' Democratic ties. 

She said the contract was awarded through Department of Health and Human Services without final approval from the State Emergency Operations Center. It was canceled and will be awarded to a new firm. 

Robert Gordon

The department this week had said the decision was made by a group of public health officials with "support from financial operations administration and IT," but stopped short of naming the individuals until Friday night. 

The individuals included 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.

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

According to her LinkedIn page, Lyon-Callo previously served as an autism surveillance coordinator for the Michigan Public Health Institute, the nonprofit the state contracted with for the contact tracing project. Great Lakes Community Engagement and EveryAction VAN were subcontracted through MPHI, but were to be paid directly by the state department. 

The original $194,000 contract approved by the group awarded community engagement and data management duties to EveryAction VAN, an arm of a Democratic campaign data management platform, and Great Lakes Community Engagement, which is run by Mike Kolehouse, a Democratic consultant who said a month ago on Facebook that he hoped President Donald Trump would get “coronavirus ASAP.”

EveryAction, a division of 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.

Contact tracing involves identifying people with whom an infected COVID-19 person has come in contact to help determine the spread of the potentially deadly virus. Some of the data that could be collected are phone numbers, household members, close contacts and travel history.

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

Whitmer said Tuesday the contract was an “unnecessary distraction” from Michigan’s coronavirus response. 

"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."

Republicans have called for transparency from the governor and demanded that Whitmer release all emails related to the matter. 

Some public records requests to state and local agencies have been delayed this month under an executive order that loosened the timeline for which state and local agencies could respond to public records requests.

Communities in which the coronavirus "interferes with the timely grant or denial of a request" are able to defer such a request through June 4, but the rule doesn't allow for a "blanket suspension" through June, said Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for the governor. 

The GOP-led Legislature voted Friday to create an oversight committee with subpoena power to review Whitmer’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

And the Republican-led Senate passed bills that would curb the governor’s power, with at least one senator citing the contract with Kolehouse and EveryAction VAN as one of the reasons for the legislation. 

"Our framers correctly realized that the pursuit of power is a vice that should be safeguarded against," said Sen. Tom Barrett, the Charlotte Republican who sponsored the legislation.