FAA, Michigan House could probe Whitmer's private flights

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Federal Aviation Administration and the chairman of a Michigan House panel suggested Monday that they would further examine Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's use of a private plane to visit her father in March.

Rep. Steve Johnson, the chairman of the Michigan House Oversight Committee, said he's considering probing the financial arrangements behind the top state officeholder's travel. Johnson, R-Wayland, said he hadn't decided what his course of action will be but added that he might draft a letter with questions and send it to the Democratic administration.

"If they refuse to (answer the questions), maybe, at that point, we will do hearings. It's definitely something in consideration," Johnson said. "I would like to give the administration the opportunity to answer questions before we go down that road."

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.

Legislative oversight committees have the power to review a broad range of issues from the state budget to campaign finance issues to state regulations.

Also on Monday, an FAA spokesperson confirmed that Detroit-based Air Eagle, the company whose plane carried Whitmer to Florida and back, doesn't have the certificate that allows for charter-type services. The statement came after  Whitmer's Chief of Staff JoAnne Huls said last week the administration used "a chartered flight for this trip."

It's premature "to conclude that a violation of federal aviation regulations occurred," a statement from the FAA said.

"The FAA is looking into the matter," the statement continued.

The Monday comments reveal that officials at both the state and federal levels are considering using their resources to explore the out-of-state travel, which came to light on April 19 but has continued to draw questions.

Representatives of the Democratic governor continued to defend the arrangement. The governor's spokesman Bobby Leddy said Whitmer needed secure transportation, Air Eagle was able to provide it and the flight was paid for.

On Friday, Whitmer's administration revealed that a nonprofit organization that raised money for her inauguration primarily funded the private plane that carried her to visit her dad, Richard, who lives in Florida and is said to be battling a chronic illness.

The social welfare nonprofit organization Michigan Transition 2019 chartered the private plane, which took Whitmer out of state on Friday, March 12, and returned her to Lansing, on Monday, March 15, a memo from Whitmer's chief of staff, JoAnne Huls, said.

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, two months earlier. The same disclosure shows Whitmer paid the nonprofit $855 for her seat on the flights — 3% of the total price tag for the flights.

"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."

It remains unclear why the nonprofit was involved in funding the flights.But Chris Trebilcock, an attorney who's working with the Whitmer administration, said the organization "defrays the cost of the governor’s travel when it’s consistent with the account’s purposes and not covered by taxpayers."

"The flight was paid immediately upon receiving receipt of the cost," Trebilcock said.

Whitmer 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.

A newly released tax filing shows Michigan Transition 2019 raised $1 million in 2019 after taking in $2.5 million in 2018, the year of the governor's election. The organization's president is Lisa Canada, political director for the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights.

Voluntary disclosures on Michigan Transition 2019's website begin in March 2019 and show about $226,000 in contributions overall in 2019.

The nonprofit's mission is "to operate for the promotion of civic action and social welfare by promoting the common good and general welfare of the residents of, and visitors to, the state of Michigan," according to a tax filing in 2019. 

"If truly, indeed, the whole purpose of that flight was to transport the governor, then we have legal issues in play here," said Johnson, the House Oversight chairman. 

The Michigan Republican Party held a Monday morning press call on the flights. During it, Johnson questioned whether there were other people on the plane and what the purpose of the nonprofit spending money on travel to Florida was.

Whitmer took a private plane that's usually shared by three of Michigan's most prominent political donors. 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.

Air Eagle didn't respond Monday to a request for comment.

The Michigan GOP accused Whitmer of using the nonprofit illegally to fund the travel.

"The big question here is, why did Gov. Whitmer pay for just 3% of a trip that was self-described as 100% personal?" said Ted Goodman, spokesman for the state Republican Party.

cmauger@detroitnews.com