Emails: Duggan's son recommended Democratic consultant to aid COVID-19 contact tracing

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

A Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity employee recently hired by Joe Biden's presidential campaign appears to be the first to suggest the state’s Department of Health and Human Services use a Democratic political consultant to help the state’s coronavirus contact tracing efforts. 

Ed Duggan, a LEO senior adviser, introduced Democratic consultant Mike Kolehouse to Andrea Taverna, senior adviser to Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon, in a March 25 email. Duggan described Kolehouse as someone who “does some organizing and can help on some efforts," according to emails obtained by The Detroit News in an open records request.

“It’s obviously a fluid situation,” wrote Duggan, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s son, “so be patient as she is working through what she might need.”

Ed Duggan

On March 31, six days after the introductory email, Health and Human Services  employee Kathryn Macomber had prepared an update for Gordon on contact tracing efforts, noting there were “collaborations occurring with Kolehouse Strategies to manager (sic) the volunteers (shifts, assignments, etc.).”

The contract with Kolehouse’s Great Lakes Environmental Consulting wouldn’t be signed for another three weeks — only to be canceled a day later on April 21 after it received media attention. 

The state emails indicate Kolehouse communicated with at least three key Health and Human Services officials who Gordon said helped decide who won the initial contact tracing contract — Taverna, Macomber and Joseph Coyle.

Kolehouse is a well-known Democratic consultant who posted on Facebook in March that he hoped President Donald Trump would get “coronavirus ASAP.” Kolehouse did not immediately return a call seeking comment. 

Whitmer has said she canceled the contract with Kolehouse as soon as she found out about it, calling Kolehouse’s political connections an “unnecessary distraction” from the pressing need for contact tracing to control the virus. State emails released in late May indicate key staffers in Whitmer’s administration knew about the contract a few days prior to the cancellation. 

When asked why Duggan, a LEO employee, was recommending experts for the state’s burgeoning contact tracing program, Health and Human Services spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin declined comment because of Attorney General Dana Nessel’s ongoing investigation into the contract.

The News was unable Wednesday to contact Ed Duggan through the Democratic campaign of former Vice President Biden, which announced Tuesday that Duggan had been hired as the campaign’s Michigan political director and had “over a decade of experience working on political campaigns.” He also was listed as a former "special adviser" to Whitmer, who is a co-chair of Biden's presidential campaign.

Sutfin also declined to say how long Kolehouse performed work for the state. In April, Sutfin said there were “meetings, calls and other business development” with Kolehouse, but never “access provided to individual data about individuals with COVID-19 or their contacts.”

Nessel's office did not immediately respond to questions regarding the status of the investigation.

Duggan’s introduction of Kolehouse on March 25 was followed by a series of emails in late March between Taverna, Kolehouse and Health and Human Services employees Macomber and Coyle.

Kolehouse emphasized his willingness to help, noting he had a “team of organizers ready to help and assist with building systems, scripts, call procedures, data tracking and anything else you need.”

Taverna on March 26 noted the department’s staff was working to volunteer and help organize contact tracing at local health departments but might need help organizing public volunteers to do the same.

“I will keep you posted as quickly as I can as the plan and needs develop,” Taverna wrote. “Again, deeply appreciate your willingness to jump in during the crisis and I’ll let you know when there’s a good place to plug in.”

On March 27 — the same day Kolehouse took to Facebook to say he hoped Trump contracted COVID-19 — Kolehouse noted in an email to Taverna that he had seven managers “all capable of managing, training, trackoing (sic) large number of volunteers ready to go.”

He offered help “to outline the structure of the program.” Macomber appeared to take him up on that offer March 31, scheduling a call with him and his director of operations for the next day. 

Minutes after scheduling the meeting, Macomber sent a summary of the department's contact tracing activities for a meeting with Gordon, noting the Department of Health and Human Services had drafted training plans for public volunteers. 

“The training and legal certifications are being built in MITRAIN and there are collaborations occurring with Kolehouse Strategies to manager (sic) the volunteers (shifts, assignments, etc.),” Macomber wrote. 

More than two weeks later, on April 17, Taverna informed Whitmer’s Communications Director Zack Pohl and Deputy Communications Director Eileen Belden of an “alternative organization agreement” for the contract.

The alternative agreement largely swapped out in the contract language the more politically connected K2K Consultants and Kolehouse Strategies with Great Lakes Community Engagement, which serves nonprofit and corporate clients with the same staff as K2K and Kolehouse Strategies.

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

Robert Gordon

The contact tracing contract also would include Every Action VAN, a data platform used by nonprofits, but associated with NGP VAN, a separate data platform used by Democratic campaigns.

As Whitmer moved to cancel the contract April 21, Macomber told a supervisor that she learned about the company through Taverna. Macomber indicated that Taverna may have been connected to Kolehouse’s firm through “Mayor Duggan,” apparently confusing the mayor with his son. 

Initially, the Department of Health and Human Services refused to release to The News the names of the employees associated with the contract. When The News reported the refusal on April 24, the department changed course and director Gordon identified Taverna, Macomber, Coyle and state epidemiologist Sarah Lyon-Callo at 11 p.m. 

The News submitted public records requests for the employees' emails the next day, on April 25, and was granted those requests Wednesday, more than two months later.