Conservative group files IRS complaint over Gov. Whitmer's flights

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A conservative group filed a complaint Wednesday with the Internal Revenue Service, arguing that a nonprofit organization improperly funded the flights Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took to visit her father in Florida.

The new filing by Eric Ventimiglia, executive director of Michigan Rising Action, says the governor's trip on a private plane in March fell outside the tax-exempt purpose of the social welfare organization Michigan Transition 2019.

The nonprofit, which was formed to help fund Whitmer's inauguration, paid $27,521 to charter the plane that carried the governor, according to a voluntary disclosure and a memo from JoAnne Huls, Whitmer's chief of staff. Whitmer paid the nonprofit $855 in exchange for her seat on the plane. 

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.

The financial arrangement amounted to an improper "private benefit" to Whitmer, Ventimiglia wrote in his complaint. The IRS is the federal entity in charge of regulating nonprofit organizations.

"In light of these facts, we encourage you to investigate whether Michigan Transition 2019 has violated the Internal Revenue Code, and if so, to take appropriate action, including the assessment of any appropriate penalties," Ventimiglia wrote.

Michigan Rising Action describes itself as "focused on holding liberal groups and their special interest networks accountable and advancing conservative principles."

Representatives of the governor and Michigan Transition 2019 have said they followed the law. Christopher Trebilcock, an attorney for Michigan Transition 2019, said earlier this week that the organization defrays the cost of the governor's travel when "it's consistent with the account's purposes."

In a memo on Friday, Huls said the arrangement "was done in compliance with the law."

"Due to ongoing security and public health concerns, we made a decision to use a chartered flight for this trip," Huls wrote.

Whitmer left to visit her father, Richard, on March 12 and returned on March 15. She traveled on a plane that's primarily used by three prominent Detroit business families. The governor has said she cooked and cleaned for her father, who's facing a chronic illness, while on the trip.

"When a family member of mine needs a little help, though, I'm going to show up," Whitmer said.

She has also said she performed duties of her office, including participation in meetings, while caring for her father. The trip came to light on April 19, but questions about it have followed the administration for weeks.

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 IRS can impose an excise tax on transactions that provide an "excess benefit" to someone who can "exercise substantial influence over the affairs of the applicable tax-exempt organization," according to the agency's website.

It's unclear who else traveled with Whitmer on the plane to Florida and whether federal regulators will believe the flights fell within the scope of the nonprofit organization's legal umbrella.

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. 

Michigan Transition 2019 reported raising $1 million in 2019 after taking in $2.5 million in 2018, the year of the governor's election.

In addition to the IRS complaint, House Oversight Chairman Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, said earlier this week that his panel might probe the financial arrangements behind the flights. And the Federal Aviation Administration is examining whether Air Eagle, the company that owns the plane the governor used, should have been able to provide the flights in exchange for money under its current licenses.

cmauger@detroitnews.com