Nonprofit paid for Whitmer's chartered flight out of state

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A nonprofit organization tied to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration paid to charter the flight that carried her to visit her father, but Whitmer paid for a seat, her administration said Friday. 

The revelations came in an unaddressed email memo signed by Whitmer's chief of staff, JoAnne Huls, weeks into a controversy on the out-of-state trip during a pandemic.

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

"Due to ongoing security and public health concerns, we made a decision to use a chartered flight for this trip," Huls wrote in the memo. "The governor's flight was not a gift, not paid for at taxpayer expense and was done in compliance with the law."

The social welfare nonprofit organization Michigan Transition 2019 chartered the private plane, which took Whitmer to Florida on Friday, March 12, and returned her to Lansing, on Monday, March 15. The group spent $27,521 on travel over the first 14 days of May, according to a voluntary disclosure, which apparently covers the March flights.

The same disclosure shows Whitmer paid the nonprofit a $855 total for her seat on the flights. Michigan Information & Research Service News (MIRS News) first reported the arrangement Friday.

The nonprofit organization was formed in November 2018 to help fund Whitmer's inauguration, according to state business records. In 2019, it reported to the state that it would be using an assumed name: Executive Office Account. It's unclear how a nonprofit that falls under strict federal rules prohibiting the use of funds for personal expenses qualified to fund the travel.

The governor has said she performed duties of her office, including participation in meetings, while caring for her father, but didn't specify what she did.

Federal tax law prohibits nonprofits from the practice of inurement, which is the use of nonprofit income or assets to excessively benefit an individual who has a close relationship with the tax-exempt organization, according to the Legal Information Institute at the Cornell Law School.

The account "defrays the cost of the governor’s travel when it’s consistent with the account’s purposes," Huls said. According to a 2019 tax filing, the group's mission is to promote "civic action and social welfare."

Whitmer has repeatedly said she took the flight to visit her father. She has said there "was an important family reason for doing it." 

Tori Sachs, a Republican political consultant, called for Whitmer's use of the nonprofit organization to be investigated. She said there is no legal theory where reimbursing $800 for a $27,000 flight "solves anything."

Ted Goodman, spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party, said there was a reason Whitmer's office released the news on a Friday night.

"Tonight's revelations raise additional questions and concerns surrounding the financial arrangements of Gov. Whitmer's secret, unvaccinated trip to Florida on a private jet," Goodman said.

The governor received her doses of COVID-19 vaccine in mid-April and April 29.

A spokesman for Whitmer referred questions about why the nonprofit was able to fund the chartered flight to an attorney, who didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Wednesday, the Democratic governor said 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.

She had refused to say which state she traveled or how the flight was arranged since news of the trip broke in April.

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.

A Gulfstream G280 costs about $2,500 per hour to operate, according to Air Charter Advisors, a boutique jet charter broker based outside Philadelphia.

Whitmer's trip to Florida took 2 hours and 10 minutes, while the return flight to Lansing took 2 hours, 24 minutes, according to tracking data from Flight Aware. At more than four and a half hours, the flight operation would have cost at least $11,250, according to Air Charter Advisors.

During a 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.”

In her memo Friday, Huls said the health of Whitmer's father, Richard, deteriorated after she returned to Michigan on March 15.

On Monday, Whitmer took her father to Ann Arbor, where he underwent a medical procedure to start intravenous antibiotics. His procedure was successful, Huls said.