Gov. Whitmer: Flight to visit father was not 'a gift'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday her flight to visit her father was not paid for by taxpayer dollars and was not "a gift," but she declined to provide additional information about how the trip was funded.

The Democratic governor's comments came at a press conference about two months after she traveled out of state to visit her father, Richard Whitmer, who lives in Florida and her office says is battling a chronic illness. The Michigan Republican Party held its own Wednesday event, calling on Whitmer to answer more questions about the flight as controversy and mystery surrounding the outing continues for a fourth week.

"This flight was not a gift," Whitmer said at her press conference. "This flight was not paid for at taxpayer expense. And I don't know if there's anything more to add.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday her out of state flight to visit her father was not paid for with taxpayer dollars and was not "a gift." She is pictured here on April 27, 2021.

"When a family member of mine needs a little help, though, I'm going to show up. Just like when we have a crisis here, we're going to work 24/7 to keep the people of this state safe."

Whitmer's assertion that her flight was not a "gift" could refer to Michigan's lobby law, which specifically defines gifts and bans lobbyists, companies that employ them or anyone acting on behalf of either from giving them to officeholders.

For the trip, Whitmer took a private plane that's usually shared by three of Michigan's most prominent political donors, The Detroit News reported last week. The Nicholson family of PVS Chemicals, the Moroun family of the trucking company Central Transport and the Cotton family, which formerly ran Meridian Health, are among those who use the Gulfstream G280 flown by Air Eagle LLC, according to a source with knowledge of the arrangement.

The Moroun family has denied any involvement in arranging the flight carrying the governor. Air Eagle has refused to release information about its passengers or flights.

A twin-engine jet Gulfstream G280 owned by Air Eagle flew from Lansing to Palm Beach on Friday, March 12, and returned to Lansing on Monday, March 15. Whitmer's father, the retired CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, owns a home in West Palm Beach. 

Whitmer acknowledged Wednesday that her trip lasted from a Friday to a Monday. At the same time, her office has continually described the trip as being "two full days" since it was first reported on April 19.

"When you leave on a Friday morning and come back on Monday night, that's not two full days," Michigan Republican Party spokesman Ted Goodman contended Wednesday. "That's in effect four full days."

Goodman spoke in a parking lot behind the Michigan GOP headquarters, pledging that the party would get more "answers" about the flight.

"The governor refuses to tell us how she paid for the trip," Goodman said. "The focus shouldn't be on whose plane this was. If I had my own private plane, the governor of my state calls, she wants that plane, I am going to give her access if I can."

He questioned moments later, "Did she strong arm somebody to get access to that plane?"

The Morouns, the Cottons and the Nicholsons were all among the top 12 political donors in Michigan during the 2018 election, the last gubernatorial election when Whitmer defeated Republican Bill Schuette by 9 percentage points, according to tracking by the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network. They normally donate to Republican candidates.

Asked if the individuals connected to the plane should be more open about what happened with the flight, Goodman responded, "It's not about that."

"It's not incumbent upon them," Goodman said. "They're not the sitting governor."

Michigan Republican Party spokesman Ted Goodman said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer needs to provide more answers about her out of state flight to visit her father at a Wednesday, May 12, 2021 press conference in Lansing. Goodman is standing next to a fake poster of Whitmer on a beach.

A family member or Whitmer herself could have funded the flight, but the governor's office has not indicated that so far. Also, a campaign account or nonprofit entity tied to the governor could have paid for the flight, but the travel would have to have included some type of official business or campaign-related activity.

During her Wednesday press conference, Whitmer noted she campaigned on stories regarding the challenge of taking care of her mom at the end of her life while rearing her daughter and serving as state representative.

"This is a part of my story," she said. "For anyone to be surprised that I have a family member who’s been having a lot of health issues that I showed up to check in ... they’re obviously not paying attention to who I am or what I do.

"...I showed up when I was needed. I did a lot of cooking, a lot of cleaning. I also did my day job, meaning I was on regular calls and conferences with my team.”

Rodericka Applewhaite, spokeswoman for the Michigan Democratic Party, called Wednesday's Michigan GOP press conference "another cheap attempt to manufacture a partisan distraction out of thin air."

Two prominent members of the Whitmer administration traveled out of state in April, drawing criticism from Republicans. Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Department of Health Human Services, went to Alabama with her family. Chief Operating Officer Tricia Foster posted photos of herself traveling with her family to Florida, where they vacationed in Siesta Key south of Tampa. The trips came as the Whitmer administration issued public warnings about out-of-state travel.

An April 2 press release from the Department of Health and Human Services linked to a page of "travel tips" that encouraged people to "delay travel and stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19."

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.